Music for nothing

Pub date July 5, 2006
WriterJay BoronskiWriterWill York

› a& We’re living in a golden age of commercial radio in the Bay Area: It’s now possible to hear “Brandy” by Looking Glass on at least four stations. Ladies and gentlemen, meet 95.7 Max FM, the station that plays whatever it wants, whenever it feels like it, as long as it was a Top 40 hit between 1970 and 1995. Max FM, the station that never plays the same song in the same day, as long as you don’t consider John Cougar Mellencamp’s “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” and Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Heart of Rock ’n’ Roll” to be the same song. Max FM is part of the wider “Variety Hits” movement that’s been shaking up the airwaves in the last two years. Countless FM stations are firing their on-air talent and concocting identities based on computer-generated playlists and smart-assy yet avuncular personas. Usually played by a single vaguely familiar commercial actor, the voice-overs provide the attitude during the seemingly endless interstitials that have replaced the human DJs. The personae’s names vary — Jack, Bob, Max — but they share a certain rock-solid, Rotary Club cachet. They’re names scientists give to captive chimps. Names of high-end teddy bears. Names that survivors of ritual abuse give to their multiple personalities. Guy names. Whatever the local moniker, the Jack-Bob-Ben-Dave-Max aesthetic is multifaceted, encompassing everything from Adult Hits to Variety Alternative to Adult Variety. Granted, the playlist is a cut below what you might find on Cameron Crowe’s Ultimate Megamix: it’s Don Henley and Billy Squier instead of the Eagles and Led Zeppelin. Still, there’s an element of surprise in the so-called “train wreck” segues that are the format’s bread and butter. Stick around for long enough and you’ll hear blues (the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ “Tuff Enuff”), Afrobeat (Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al”), and even reggae (the first 10 seconds of the Police’s “Roxanne”) — possibly all within the same set. What follows is an attempt to crack the Variety Hits–slash–Max FM code in one nonstop 24-hour sitting. CHRONOLOGY 7:58 p.m. First four songs: Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” An earnest heartland vibe, but nothing too objectionable so far. 8:35 p.m. Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” One of the station’s mottoes is “Max FM: The songs you forgot you remembered,” and they’re not joking. When you hear the guitars break in, you realize just how kick-ass this song really is. Just kidding. Oliver Sacks should write a book about those of us who are immune to the chill that shoots down the spine after recognizing the first three chords. 9:23 p.m. Following a whopping 16 consecutive male artists, token female-fronted act Blondie weighs in with “The Tide is High” — followed by the Boss, U2, and Elton John. The male-heavy playlist reinforces our image of the archetypal Max FM listener as a dude who bought one of the first CD players in the mid-’80s and then built his collection around a string of strategic BMG and Columbia House memberships: lots of greatest hits collections, lots of middling white-guy rock. 10:18 p.m. Parliament’s “We Want the Funk.” This one came out of left field. “I really wanted to hate this station,” admits Will York. “But I have to say, I like a solid one-fourth of the songs they play.” For the record, this is the second song by an African American artist in three hours. The first: Phil Bailey, in collaboration with Phil Collins on the soul-dead classic “Easy Lover.” 11:18 p.m. King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” Haven’t heard this one in a while. Another musty oldie-but-sure-enough goodie. 11:35 p.m. Just when you start to fall in love with the station, they turn around and blast you right in the package with some insipid ’80s fossil like Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” 11:39 p.m. And they follow it up with Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F.” Wow. Music at its worst. 11:42 p.m. Interstitial: “Max FM. We break all the rules.” Do they call “shotgun!” while they’re still eating dinner? If it’s yellow, do they not let it mellow? What is so anarchic about a computer that plays Top 40 hits? 12:46 a.m. Night suddenly takes turn for the better when housemate arrives with partially eaten Middle Eastern platter found on the street. Pita gone. Lots of hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush left. Embodying the anything goes spirit of Max FM, Jay and Will decide to eat it. 12:52 a.m. Night takes turn for the grotesque: Will finds part of a severed thumb with a nail through it buried in the hummus. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” plays in the background. 1:22 a.m. Actual listener phone call: “Even the guy I share an office with is, like, ‘What station is that?’>” You can picture them tuning in and hoping for an “Eye of the Tiger” to get them pumped up to go duke it out with the yahoos down in accounts receivable. P.S. Calling a radio station that doesn’t have a DJ is like writing a letter to Ronald McDonald — pathetic. 2:02 a.m. Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way.” Delirium is slowly descending, as the conversation starts to resemble dialogue from a Philip K. Dick novel: WILL: Is that from Frampton Comes Alive? JAY: What isn’t from Frampton Comes Alive? WILL: Good point. 2:36 a.m. Toni Basil’s “Mickey.” A challenging game to play while listening to Max FM: Name the Weird Al Yankovic Version of That Tune. He’s parodied a good 20 percent of the station’s playlist, including this one. 2:40 a.m. Interstitial: “You never know what you’re going to hear next on Max FM!” Maybe not, but at this point, it’s far more likely to be an Eddie Money song than, say, a James Gang deep cut or an excerpt from Malcolm X’s “Keep That White Man’s Claws off Our Women” speech. 3:28 a.m. Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Exhaustion setting in. Will is now listening to pirated George Carlin MP3s on his laptop; Jay is playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and starting to hallucinate. Sky still dark as the night continues. 3:46 a.m. Actual listener phone call: “I thought my girlfriend was playing music from my CD collection, but it turned out to be Max FM. Keep up the good work!” Dear listener: You might want to head down to the Money Mart at 16th Street and Valencia, because it appears the hobo with the CDs lined up against the wall is unloading your “collection” at 25 cents a pop. 5:15 a.m. K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.” If there’s one word to describe this station’s music, it’s Caucasian. Jay and Will haven’t felt this uncomfortable being white since the Rodney King verdict. 5:22 a.m. Mike and the Mechanics’ “Silent Running.” The face in the mirror is not my own, thinks Jay. I am gazing into the five o’clock shadow of a serial killer. 7:02 a.m. Interesting batch of songs in the last 45 minutes: “Time” by the Alan Parsons Project, “Clocks” by Coldplay, and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” by Chicago. The computer that programs these songs appears to be signaling for help in cleaning up some residual Y2K issues. 8:41 a.m. The Beatles’ “Get Back.” They play one Beatles song, and it’s hands down one of their worst ever. 9:06 a.m. Ambrosia’s “You’re the Only Woman.” The next person Will meets who actually wants to hear an Ambrosia song on the radio will be the first. 12:44 p.m. Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square.” There’s a very real possibility that Jay will be handcuffed to a gurney by the end of this experiment. 1:43 p.m. Genesis’ “Invisible Touch.” Will feels like Chevy Chase in European Vacation, only instead of pointing out, “Big Ben! Parliament!” he’s muttering “Phil Collins … Genesis.” Six more hours. 3:37 p.m. Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” Never question the Elton Joel Theorem: “If a station plays Elton John, then it also plays Billy Joel.” It took a while, but Joel is officially on the board — although Elton still leads the competition, four to one. 4:23 p.m. “I put a moratorium on crap,” announces Max FM voice-over specialist John O’Hurley, a.k.a. J. Peterman from Seinfeld. Unfortunately, the moratorium lasts just 0.7 seconds, as the next song is Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off.” 6:31 p.m. In the last hour: Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” and “The Heart of the Matter.” It’s simply impossible to underestimate Henley’s place in the Max FM pantheon. His Building the Perfect Beast and The End of the Innocence are the Sgt. Pepper’s and “White Album” of the Variety Hits genre. 7:56 p.m. Bruce Hornsby’s “Mandolin Rain.” This plain vanilla piano ballad marks a fitting end to a day of plain vanilla music. Having come out on the other side, Jay and Will can empathize with the character from the French plantation scene in Apocalypse Now Redux who described the Vietnam War as “the biggest nothing in history.” SFBG