BROOKE GLADSTONE: Though his youthful legions of fans are probably unaware of this fact, the quirky musician known as Moby provides a vital link to pop music's past. Moby is one of the few thriving practitioners of the not-so-ancient art: the rock instrumental. Once a staple of top 40 radio in the '50s and '60s, lyricless pop has all but evaporated from the airwaves. On the Media's Rex Doane tried to track it down.
PETE "MAD DADDY" MYERS: Mad Daddy giggle jiggles -- never chicken! [ELECTRIC GUITAR CHORD] Yeah! Oxxy Briar [sp?] will give your sound a tumble-- all the cats really flip over this crazy, wavy Rumble!! [LAUGHS] [SONG RUMBLE PLAYS UNDER]
REX DOANE: Among the many changes top 40 radio has endured over the past 4 decades, it is the disappearance of rock instrumentals that rates as one of the more painful losses for pop purists. Records like Rumble as presented here by Cleveland deejay Pete "Mad Daddy" Myers back in 1958 used to be heard liberally alongside vocal hits. For Steven Otfinoski, author of The Golden Age of Instrumentals, top 40 radio of the '50s and '60s was an embarrassment of riches. [SONG TEQUILA PLAYS UNDER]
STEVEN OTFINOSKI: The democracy of music at that point was just incredible. AM radio had everything from pop to jazz to R&B to rock & roll, country and western. Everything was in the top 40 of that, of that period, and instrumentals was part of that mix.
REX DOANE: Top 40 radio stations not only featured a broad spectrum of music, but the instrumental hits they played ran the gamut of styles as well.
STEVEN OTFINOSKI: And we'd call it rock instrumentals, but it really was many, many different kinds of music that fed into rock & roll and R&B were part of that format at the time. [MAN IN SONG SAYS: TEQUILA] [SONG MISERLOU PLAYS]
REX DOANE: Surf tunes along with country, soul, R&B and even easy listening songs were all part of the instrumental rock phenomena. And then there were those instrumental chart toppers that defied description. [SONG GREEN MOSQUITO PLAYS]
STEVEN OTFINOSKI: There were strange gimmicks with the sound effects; there was a thing called The Green Mosquito where you had a mosquito buzzing around. You had Rockin Crickets where you had the sound of crickets in, in, in between the musical passages; you had all sorts of crazy things and, and these songs today might never make the charts, but back then that kind of novelty in an instrumental [...?...] people [...?...] and sold records. [SONG ROCKIN CRICKETS PLAYS]
REX DOANE: Instrumental records, even Rockin Crickets, were being purchased and played in appreciable numbers. As Otfinoski points out, there was no shortage of instrumental hits when guitar licks and saxophone riffs ruled the airwaves. [SONG HONKY TONK PLAYS]
STEVEN OTFINOSKI: As I state in my book there were at least 250 charting songs in the top 40 that were instrumentals between, say, 1956 when really the, the genre took off with a song called Honky Tonk by Bill Doggett and his combo until about 1966 which is when the last great instrumental burst came through with Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass which was kind of the last word in instrumentals. [SONG PLAYED BY TIJUANA BRASS PLAYS]
REX DOANE: The pseudo-Mariachi sounds of Alpert made several forays into the pop charts. Alpert along with Duane Eddy, Link Wray and groups like [...?...] Booker T and the MG's [sp?] all enjoyed fruitful and sustained careers as instrumental-only artists. And while their careers began to wane in the late 60s, a new brand of instrumental was being heard on the radio. [THEME FROM SWAT PLAYS]
SEAN ROSS: Yeah, during the '70s and early '80s it certainly still had some currency because of TV themes, because of the Rockford Files, because of the Theme from SWAT.
REX DOANE: Sean Ross is the group editor at Billboard Airplane Monitor.
SEAN ROSS: Eventually, of course, the whole TV and movie sound track business changed and even there the focus went away from instrumentals. [SONG POPCORN PLAYS]
REX DOANE: Instrumental hits that didn't have the benefit of being tied to a hit television show were becoming rarer still. While the hit Popcorn for better or worse peaked at number 9 in 1972, it was the disco craze that temporarily spared the instrumental. [SONG TRUE SOUNDS OF PHILADELPHIA PLAYS] While hits like the True Sounds of Philadelphia saw plenty of chart action, by the time the '80s rolled around, radio gave a firm veto to nearly any song without a vocal. Monica Lynch, former president of Tommy Boy Records, provides perspective on the plight of the all-instrumental act.
MONICA LYNCH: In today's landscape image is paramount, and it's very difficult for the most part in today's industry which is so high stakes and where there's so much money involved, they want to know that when a single comes out by an artist, that the public and the radio stations and the video outlets will immediately grasp the image, the concept, the performer, and that may be a much more difficult thing to do if it's an instrumental with no vocal or lyrical hook. [LAUGHING INTRO TO THE SONG WIPEOUT PLAYS]
REX DOANE: The emphasis major labels began to place on music videos as a primary means of marketing also helped place the instrumental on the endangered species list. [WIPEOUT PLAYS]
MONICA LYNCH: You know in the past 20 years the visualization of music has just intensified. Certainly since the birth of MTV, and that has effectively pushed out a lot of niches of the pop spectrum. [SONG PLAYS]
REX DOANE: The reluctance of the record industry to push instrumentals is equaled only by the reluctance of commercial radio to play them.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Radio has changed so dramatically since the last time instrumentals had any play on radio that the barriers may be too difficult to, to get around or to get over.
REX DOANE: Eric Boehlert writes for Salon.com.
ERIC BOEHLERT: I mean if radio does play an instrumental and they fall in love with it, and then for instance there's no video, you know, radio doesn't like playing artists that don't have a video or a record company that's not willing to spend a hundred thousand dollars to make a video. There has to be a whole package. You know, it can't just be a great song. [SONG TELSTAR PLAYS]
REX DOANE: Certainly there are those instrumentals that have gained a second life as cannibalized clips in commercials or samples on hip hop records. But to hear anything new in the instrumental vein or even well-remembered tunes like Telstar, you may well need to look beyond radio and follow the lead of high tech teenagers.
ERIC BOEHLERT: Teenagers in America are not wed to their radios. They're wed to their MP3's and they're wed to their computers and they love their CDs. They're not turning on the radio to hear, you know, great new music first. [SONG GREEN ONIONS UP AND UNDER]
REX DOANE: And for the digitally-disinclined who hope and pray for the return to radio of more rock and soul without all the verbiage, the wait continues. In New York for On the Media I'm Rex Doane.
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis and Michael Kavanagh; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Eric Wellman. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he's been nothing but cooperative. [GREEN ONIONS FADES]