Michael Gerber
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KHJ billboard, LA, 1960’s.

Yesterday quite randomly I stumbled upon this archive of recordings from Los Angeles’ legendary rock and roll radio station, KHJ. “Boss 93” started in 1965, and for fourteen years was beloved by young groovers like Quentin Tarentino, who used the station as part of the soundscape behind Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Here’s a nice appreciation from Los Angeles Magazine.)

I started with this hour, from April 24, 1966. As I listened, it made me aware of a bunch of things:
1) The furious pace of change in The Beatles’ music. We talk about this a lot, but here you really hear it. In ’66, a lot of these artists were still aping The Beatles ’64 sound; halfway through, there is a sour and obnoxious Chad and Jeremy song called “Teenage Failure” which I’d never heard before, a jangled up, Beatlized incel anthem. I don’t mean to pick on poor Chad and Jeremy (who scored a hit with the Lennon/McCartney “From a Window“), but as the cliche-laden “Teenage Failure” was being played as a new release on Top 40 radio, The Beatles were recording “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
2) The generally high quality of the music. Even something completely middlebrow and unambitious like The Mindbenders’ “Groovy Kind of Love” is a marvelous little piece of pop songwriting, wonderfully produced and performed. And it’s very…sweet? Compare this to contemporary culture, and it seems almost unbearably romantic—and thus rather false. But we know it was connecting with people, because they were buying it. Pop music’s parameters hadn’t yet expanded in 1966, and working within that limited palette had benefits as well as disadvantages. If you were a genius—say, The Beatles, or Stevie Wonder (compare “Nothin’s Too Good for My Baby” a slab of fun, bland Motown, with “Superstition” six years later) it restricted you. But if you weren’t a genius, like The Mindbenders or The Lovin’ Spoonful, it gave you a template that really worked. (I like John Sebastian as much as the next Kotter, but he wasn’t a genius.)
3) That song is followed by an ad for the movie The Loved One, is a Terry Southern/Christopher Isherwood-penned adaptation of a Evelyn Waugh novella from 1948. If you watch it now, the film really doesn’t come off, in the same way that a lot of 1960’s-era satire doesn’t (looking at you, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, Catch-22, many others). It’s hard to say what doesn’t work exactly, but my first guess is that it’s about ten years too late, an attempt by a bunch of 1940s-50s era hipsters (Southern; Tony Richardson; Jonathan Winters; Lenny Bruce was offered the part of “Guru Brahmin” but turned it down) to translate a very postwar, very Europhilic takedown of Hollywood and Americanism long after that mindset had lost its capacity to surprise. American life fundamentally unnatural, status conscious and distorted by money? By 1965, that was old news. The problem is, when that message would’ve really hit, it was impossible to make a movie like that; there’s nothing worse than satire two steps too slow. The Loved One was hoping to connect to a young audience which was already demanding terms that were much darker, more excessive, and more alienated than Hollywood was willing to offer. The Loved One is one of several Southern satires that simply don’t make it—Candy, The Magic Christian—these are 40s/50s stories, written and produced by 40s/50s people. It would take Hollywood at least another year (The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde) and arguably three (Southern’s Easy Rider) to speak in a filmic language that the Boomers really connected with.
4) The ad for “Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable” at The Troubadour. The Troub is a club on the Sunset Strip, which still exists today—right down the street from the venerable Dan Tana’s which poisoned me in February. Imagine watching the Velvet Underground and Nico, plus a light show, plus Andy’s movies in April 1966! With or without drugs, your head would be rearranged. This—not The Loved One—was a glimpse of what was to come in the next half of the decade. For better and worse; I can think of no more dangerous custodian of pop culture than the uber-jaded, alienated, artificial, appearance-obsessed and deeply sexually unhappy Andy Warhol. There’s something fundamentally immature about Warhol—a man injured young and never able to grow past the injury, so he became a perpetual “mean girl.”
5) The vast gulf between what one might call early Sixties teen culture, and the counterculture. KHJ is an example of the larger commercial culture attempting to incorporate, and sell to, the huge teen audience consuming rock and roll. You hear commercials for Yardley’s “London look,” Wrangler jeans, Phisoderm, and so forth, all trying to court that market in a slightly awkward way. As of 1966, that experiment—“Can we sell goods and services to the Boomers in a facsimile of their own language?”—still feels successful. (Well, arguably so.) KHJ is not countercultural, it is mainstream—but the mainstream’s not yet terminally unhip. A year later in April ’67, certainly two, that would not be the case. The counterculture, and all of its money, and potential political power, was pulling away from the rest of society, and things like drugs—and The Exploding Plastic Inevitable—were hastening and intensifying that pulling away. That gulf was real, and the larger it got, the more it was feared by people who felt their job was to keep the West unified and fighting the Communists. This is how and why someone like John Lennon turned, and was turned, from a slightly weird mainstream figure in 1965, more funny than threatening, into a radical one by 1969. And as Lennon felt this being done to him, he leaned into it.

I was born in ’69; that’s the background for these thoughts. My boyhood was a post-counterculture one, but it was also spent in Missouri, which was a bit behind the coasts. So I could still see the world before the counterculture. I am sure people living then have their own opinions (Bambooska?) and look forward to hearing them in the comments.

It’s very easy for people living in 2023 to hear Sixties music as one vast undifferentiated mush—not seeing the vast differences, culturally, between all these groups, and the movement. There was a journey which begins on the one end with early Beatles and ilk (like Chad and Jeremy), then goes to The Righteous Brothers and the Young Rascals, to The Byrds and The Lovin’ Spoonful, to The Doors, to Cream, and finally to Jimi Hendrix and later Led Zep. (I’d place the VU around The Doors and Cream, by the way.) And this all happened very, very quickly—within three or four years the mainstream of pop music changed from “She Loves You” to “Purple Haze.” And it carried/was carried by the culture right along with it.

As this site and I grow older, I increasingly realize that a lot of you are experiencing this stuff as history rather than lived memory. And so I thought you might find it interesting to hear what a radio station sounded like in the period between 1965-80. This is the idiom inside which first Beatles music—and then solo music—was heard. It was very, very different than today’s experience of streaming songs singly, songs you know and love, songs that the culture and your grandma say are Great Art. Listen to KHJ and imagine its capacity to delight and surprise.