Remembering Walks On Beaker Street

Originally posted February 18, 2008

Over at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ yesterday, JB the DJ wrote about manning the microphone Sunday as the Madison area struggled with the aftermath of a ice-and-snow storm. The folks at his radio group’s news-talk station “went into full mode,” he said, providing listeners with information about the storm and its aftermath. At the same time, in what he called “our little classic-rock corner of the building,” he did plenty of that himself. And he closed his post this way:

“And I know tonight that however I might choose to pay the mortgage, whatever I might consider my primary career to be, I am, in the end, a radio man. I’ve been one since I was 11, and to my last day on Earth, whether that’s sometime this week or when I’m 101, it’s what I’m going to be.”

I understand that. I imagine a lot of you do, too. I thought for years that I would be in radio, and the medium still fascinates me. As I’ve related, I spent some time in college at KVSC, St. Cloud State’s student station. But I never worked a day in radio for a couple of reasons, the greatest of which was that I learned that I can write better than I can talk, and I’m pretty good at talking. So I wound up over the years in newspapering, in public relations, in education and in a few other things. Still, my fascination with radio endured. Every now and then, I wonder what I would have found along the road not taken, and I remember the winter when radio pulled me in.

I mentioned the other day the second-hand RCA radio that my grandfather gave me, the one I listened to the days I was home ill from high school. During the evenings, starting when I was fifteen, I would go exploring on that radio. I’d move it over to the card table that served as my desk and slowly move the tuning bar from one side of the AM band to the other. The signals on that band, of course, travel farther at night than during the day, so an hour spent “radio roaming,” as I called it, could provide the sounds of distant cities.

When I found a strong signal, I’d start an entry in a notebook, drawing a diagram that showed the tuning bar in relation to the nearest frequency number on the face of the radio (this was long before one could tune a radio digitally). With luck, the station signal would stay strong enough for me to hear the station break at the top of the hour, and I’d jot into the notebook the station’s call letters and its home city. Based on what I heard through the whoops and howls of interference, I’d make a guess at the type of programming it played and jot that down, too.

I eventually had a list of more than a hundred stations that I’d heard and identified by call letters. I didn’t always find out where they were, nor was I always correct in determining their format. Some of the bigger stations, easy to find, were KDKA in Pittsburgh, KCMO in Kansas City and KMOX in St. Louis. I also heard stations from towns large and small throughout the Midwest and into the south. And then there was KAAY in Little Rock, Arkansas, and its nighttime program, Beaker Street.

There was something called “progressive radio” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a format that was far less defined and less stringent than any station would play today. From listening to it back then, I think I can safely define it as this: The DJ could play almost any rock music he liked as long as it wasn’t two things: profane or a Top 40 hit. (There was an exception to the second part of that rule for groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I think: If a jock wanted to play “Revolution” or “Honky Tonk Women,” he – or in rare cases, she – could do so. Most DJs would dig deeper than that, though, and play selections like “Sexy Sadie” or “Jigsaw Puzzle” instead.)

Listening to Top 40 during my youth was an exercise in probability, just as it is today: When you heard “Honky Tonk Women,” you knew that by the top of the hour you’d hear “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” Listening to a “progressive” station was an adventure, as you never knew what would be coming next. And the best progressive programming I heard was on KAAY in the evenings, on Beaker Street. (The show has often been mislabeled by me and others over the years as Bleecker Street, most likely after the similarly named street that runs through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the street Simon & Garfunkel sang about on Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.)

I spent a lot of time listening to Beaker Street for the next few years, hearing performers and songs I might not otherwise have heard. From Hendrix to Sweetwater, from Mother Earth to Blues Project, from the Grateful Dead to Fleetwood Mac (then just emerging from its original identity as a blues band, years before Stevie and Lindsey), from King Crimson to Mason Proffit and beyond, Beaker Street roamed through the universe of rock albums. I didn’t always look further in those days into the groups and artists I heard, but in later years, as I explored anew the music of those times, I frequently recalled tracks I’d heard on Beaker Street. And as I looked back, I realized that the program had provided not so much a coherent sound as a complete universe where a massive range of music belonged, a universe where, if groups and songs complemented each other, they often did so by way of contrast. (Happily, Beaker Street is back on the air after some years away, though on a different station. Check it out here.)*

I don’t know what happened to my notebooks, and I’m not exactly sure when I quit sitting with my radio, trying to find new stations. Sometime during my first two years of college, I guess. It’s easy to find radio stations now, for the most part. I can go to a site like Radio-Locator and wander around the world, listening to stations that would have been far beyond the reach of my old RCA radio. It’s kind of fun to do so, but I dunno. Even if I were sixteen again, logging onto a station’s website probably wouldn’t be as much fun as bending my ear to the speaker, listening so intently for coherent sounds through the whistles and the static.

New York Rock Ensemble, Roll Over [1970]

I saw a reference at a board I frequent recently, asking members for music by the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble. It sounded familiar, so I went to the stacks and pulled out this album, one of the group’s later albums, made after a slight name change.

And when I listened to it, it sounded like something I might have heard on Beaker Street during those years. There’s nothing flashy about it, although sometimes the instrumental parts are a tad excessive, but that was the mode in 1970. It struck me as good, solid, turn of the 60s/70s rock music. But I also realized how little I know about the group.

All-Music Guide says that the group was formed by three Juilliard Music Conservatory-trained musicians: Michael Kamen, Marty Fulterman and Dorian Rudnytsky, who “decided in the late ’60s in New York that they could make bigger bucks as rock stars than as classical musicians.” The group’s first two albums – the self-titled debut in 1968 and Faithful Friends in 1969 – had the group playing rock music on classical instruments and classical music on rock instruments. AMG notes that the results of the experiment were “inconclusive,” although Leonard Bernstein invited the group to play at one of his famous Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

Following a third album – Reflections was a collaboration with Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, who had scored the 1960 film Never On Sunday – the group changed its name to the New York Rock Ensemble, was signed to Columbia, and recorded Roll Over, its first album of basic rock. It was the group’s most successful record, quite likely because one of its tracks, “Fields of Joy,” was included on Different Strokes, a Columbia sampler. (Success is a relative thing, to be sure; the album never made the Top 40.)

It’s a good record, though one gets conflicting reports from various review collections. The earliest edition I have of the Rolling Stone Record Guide [1979] says, “This is the group that made it name by wearing tuxedos, playing society gigs and trying to adapt Bach to rock. They failed miserably at all that overblown stuff, then went out and made this tremendous rock & roll album. ‘Running Down the Highway,’ ‘Anaconda’ and ‘Fields of Joy’ are all top-notch songs, and the band plays with good taste and fire.”

That assessment is pretty congruent with what I thought yesterday when I dropped the record on the turntable. On the other hand, AMG says, “Considering the original trio’s lofty ambitions to meld classical and popular music, their fourth release is solid but unexceptional rock.”

I tend to agree with the Rolling Stone guide’s assessment. Along with the three songs singled out in the review, I’d note “Traditional Order” and the album’s closer, the whimsical “Ride, Ride My Lady” as tracks worth noting.

(Oddly, the running time for “Traditional Order” on the label is 4:08, but when I ripped the mp3 and pulled it into the player, it came out at 6:03. Perhaps the band, with Columbia’s help, was trimming the listed running time in hopes of getting some airplay. That’s the only thing I can think of for that kind of discrepancy. Of course, it could just be a typo. Additionally, I’ve seen both 1970 and 1971 listed as the year for the record’s release. The record jacket has no date, but I’ve seen 1970 more frequently, so I went with that.)

Tracks:
Running Down The Highway
Gravedigger
Law and Order
Fields of Joy
The King Is Dead
Don’t Wait Too Long
Anaconda
Beside You
Traditional Order
Ride, Ride My Lady

New York Rock Ensemble – Roll Over [1970]

Note: There is a skip in “Traditional Order” that cannot be repaired. I also thought I heard a spot of distortion in the same track, but I could not find it again. Other than that, the sound is pretty clean.

*Sadly, Beaker Street is no longer on the air. The link once posted in this piece still works, but the webpage notes that the show ran for the last time February 6, 2011. That page does, however, have a link to selected downloads of the show. Note added June 11, 2011.

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4 Responses to “Remembering Walks On Beaker Street”

  1. From A Muscle To The Junkyard « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] song dressed up as a Western morality play. In the year it came out, I used to hear it through whispers of static on KAAY in Little […]

  2. Roogalators, Quetzals & More « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] Facebook page and left a note saying that the station reminded me of the now-gone show titled “Beaker Street” that aired on KAAY out of Little Rock, Arkansas. And whoever takes care of the station’s Facebook […]

  3. Packing, Greetings & Gypsy « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] who played horns on Cold Blood’s 1973 album, Thriller! And most recently, I got a nice note from Dorian Rudnytsky, a member of the New York Rock Ensemble, who thanked me for my comments on his band’s 1970 album, […]

  4. ‘You Had The Whole Damn Thing All Wrong . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] call letters long forgotten – that played a fair amount of album rock, or maybe even on KAAY’s “Beaker Street” as it sliced through the late-night static from Little Rock. I might have borrowed a workmate’s […]

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