“Underground”

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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

UNDERGROUND

It was in October of ’67 that Bob Dell and I discussed the idea of taking the last two hours of my nightly program and featuring only “heavy” rock music, rather than continue the basic “Top Forty” mix which was currently WTAC’s basic fare throughout my entire night-time shift. Although this was unheard of in contemporary radio programming, it made sense for a number of reasons.

First, we had certainly seen a remarkable surge in pure “rock-oriented” music over the Summer season and it showed no signs of dissipation. If anything, it was still on the upswing.

Secondly, it was becoming difficult to mix a Jimi Hendrix with a Barbra Streisand and a Moody Blues with a Johnny Cash or a Nancy Sinatra with a Bob Seger and maintain any sort of real programming flow and balance for younger listeners. They were starting to hate some of our regularly featured artists, whether they were selling a ton of records or not. Tastes were beginning to sharply polarize. I was getting that feedback with every other phone-call off the WTAC “Hitline” every single night.

Thirdly, the Mt. Holly factor could not be ignored. Here was WTAC bringing the essence of “new music” to their doorsteps, but we weren’t consistent in offering Mt. Holly attendees the product they loved over our airwaves.

Lastly, it just made all the sense in the world. After all, what did we have to lose? It would be promoted and presented as a premium program. So what if we were the first to make the move? Who wanted to wait around for the “other guys” to jump?

It was time to really Rock ‘n Roll!!

The “WTAC Underground” made its debut the following Monday night.
During the two hour block, I dropped all regular WTAC jingles and formatics and featured nothing but the best of the best from true “rock” releases. What qualified as “rock” was loosely defined. A general guide often proved to be what was definitely not rock more than what was. There could be no debate that the Beatles, the Stones, the Doors, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and anyone who appeared at Mt. Holly were to be included. Similarly; Frank and Nancy, the Cowsills, the Monkees, the Association, Bobby Gentry throwing her baby off that bridge and Englebert Humperdink asking for release were out. Most material off Electra was in. Motown was generally out.

There were many eccentric and arbitrary exceptions to any “general rule”.

I sensed it was artistically appropriate to feature an “old” rock classic such as Little Richard’s “Long, Tall Sally”, then segue right into the Beatles’ version. One might play “Bo Diddley” by Bo Diddley, followed with “Bo Diddley” by Buddy Holly . You could take Buddy’s “Not Fade Away” and slam right into the Stones’ rendition. There was a relatively obscure California group called The Leaves who had first done “Hey Joe”. This made a wonderful prelude to the Jimi Hendrix cut.  As many of the new albums coming in every week included re-makes,  the original recordings, almost without exception, blended beautifully. They provided a perfect sense of continuity.

I had personal charge of the “WTAC Underground” library, which grew larger by the day.  It consisted of over four hundred albums by the end of 1968. I had a storage rack assigned for exclusive “Underground” use which expanded to three large filing cabinets.

“In A Gadda Da Vida” by Iron Butterfly, which had become Atlantic Records’ largest seller in history to that point in time, was regularly featured after its release. It was one of the “statement” and/or “attitude” cuts and its length  defined the “Underground” as anything but “Top Forty” in nature. Similarly, “Days of Future Past” by the Moody Blues was continually exposed with “Nights in White Satin” leading all requests.

“Wheels of Fire” by Cream was played a side at a time.

The first “long version” of “Suzie Q.” by Creedence Clearwater Revival became an “Underground” standard long before the edited single was issued.

If it was “happening” or we felt it likely to “happen”, it made its first appearance over WTAC on the “Underground”.

I adjusted my announcing presentation substantially.

The normal “Top Forty” style called for very highly-paced delivery and an often artificial “smiling- sound”, later referred to in the industry as the “yuk” approach. It was an aural “happy face”. Most Program Directors had insisted on this quaint quality. They felt disc-jockeys should reflect “warmth”,  “friendliness” and “companionship”. An accomplished practitioner sounded like Bozo on methamphetamine. I certainly did.

A completely different persona was evolved for the “WTAC Underground”. I pulled my vocal pitch “down” rather than “up”. Not a hint of “commercial hype” was left in any information conveyed. My delivery slowed to an almost hesitant semi-crawl. I was as coooooooool as the rock was hot. The whole idea was to act as juxtaposition to the music and to convey the feeling of being sturdy, but definitely stoned. I strived to sound “with it”, but not “wasted”.

Being the dedicated artiste I was and with our WTAC parking lot only seconds away, I personally made the ultimate sacrifice and got genuinely stoned most nights just before the “Underground”. Then, with ten and fifteen minute cuts providing moments for more hits of  “Fresh Air”, I usually stayed stoned for the duration. Let’s hear it for Quicksilver Messenger Service!

Most of us had no trouble at all buying an ounce or two from band connections. It was the thing to do. Premium grade smoke ran twenty to twenty-five dollars an ounce. Jamaican Green and Columbian Gold were common-place. The legendary “Panama Red” was everything ever heard about it. Subsequent investigation revealed the very first joint Bob and I smoked was “Panama Red”. The alcoholic equivalent would be initiating your drinking experience with several tumblers of Baccardi 151, consumed in rapid succession. This relates, of course, to the magnitude of effect rather than the nature of same,  the quality and manner of intoxication being vastly different between booze and bud. To this day!

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