There was a time when there seemed to be no more enticing goal than to work eternally in college radio. Just continuing on in broadcasting had its appeal too, although it was hardly a field known for its stability and my cohorts and I at the college radio station had heard enough stories that confirmed the scariest of the lore. Besides, much as many of liked the craft that came with being behind a mic, so much of what we loved was tied to the music we were playing. The thought of heading down the road to the local Top 40 station induced shivers in many of us, and we were in a time and area that promised country radio as an even more likely destination. That would have been the equivalent of a stocking full of coal. So it was in fact the college radio station that we wanted to preserve, which elevated the glistening appeal of the handful of successful commercial stations that had playlists roughly equivalent to our own. They were the dream made real, and one in particular sort of felt like a promised land.
KROQ-FM was (and is) a radio station in Los Angeles that bent its Top 40 format when punk and new wave emerged in the nineteen-seventies and then never wrenched it back to its original position. It was college radio, but polished, professional and, perhaps most remarkably, fiscally viable. It was certainly less daring (a significant reason this countdown won’t focus on the year 1985 is that I don’t want to write about “Sussodio”), but it was also recognizably in line with our tastes at a time when much of the prevailing music scene decidedly was not. A friend of mine in the hotbed of pop culture modesty that was central Wisconsin used to get cassettes of KROQ broadcasts sent to him. It was another way to feel like the station–or at least stations like this–were within reach.
The time I’m writing about was the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties. Little did we know that “alternative rock” would indeed become a widespread format in just a few years, and that its popularity would effectively destroy it, flooding the field with slicked-up, cash-in, sound-alike bands built of gooey power chords and anguished, screamy vocals. And those off-note monstrosities have never really gone away (the runner-up on KROQ’s list of most played songs last year shreds any remaining illusions I might have about the pleasure of sitting in their air chair). Before that, though, my student broadcasting cohorts and I could still speculate about what a major, well-budgeted, professionally-staffed radio station might sound like if we ran it, and KROQ was the closest thing we had to that wish made manifest.
So how did I settle on 1987 as the year to track through KROQ’s top songs? Easy. I got a little guidance from that friend who used to receive those cassettes in the mail (though the question was deliberately kept a little cryptic). It was an astute selection that allows us to fittingly begin with one of the best and most important bands to come out of Los Angeles, a band that all on their own justified having a local radio station prepared to play punk rock. As a personal bonus, it’s probably my favorite song that this band ever recorded. But we’ll get to that next week, when the countdown gets underway.