Television and radio afford constant opportunities to look back. Certain channels are full of drama and comedy repeats; news, documentary and arts programmers are continually acknowledging this or that anniversary to sanction the use of archive material.
One such reflective series, Radio 2’s West Coast Johnnie Walker, about the concurrent Californian glory days of FM radio and pop and rock music, prompts two personal memories. First, when I was a regular listener to Walker on Radio 1, for the year or two before he left the station in 1976. At that time he was one of the few daytime DJs who sought to play more varied stuff on his show and his frustration with scheduling conservatism prompted his departure to the USA. Ironically, his music preferences which seemed so controversial then have with the passage of time become quite mainstream.
The Golden Gate Bridge, looking back from Sausalito to San Francisco.
One well-known figure from the West Coast scene of the period is Jackson Browne. It was Walker and John Peel who introduced me to Browne through playing his “Fountain of Sorrow”. The song was part of the Late for the Sky album released in 1974 but I only heard it when it was released as a single in the UK about 18 months later – possibly to coincide with concert appearances.
I used to say the song changed the way I listened to popular music. That seems an exaggeration now, but it was much longer than any single that I had heard before, and its melody and arrangement sounded unusually rich and complex coming from a recognisable guitar/piano/drums ensemble. I was easily seduced by literate lyricists in those days, and Browne’s poetic discipline and controlled vocals added to his individuality.
Although the audience for pop and rock music has become older in the past few generations, I feel that it is still primarily the music of younger people, and they are fully entitled, as we did, to over-analyse and over-praise it. Listening now to “Fountain of Sorrow”, a lyric about regret and disillusionment but also optimism, it is clear that the narrative and argument of the lyrics are less profound than I thought in my early 20s. The music and playing still sound rather good, though, with the arrangement clean and crisp, in contrast to the heavier and more cluttered sound of Browne’s 1980s albums.
West Coast Johnnie Walker includes some of the less well remembered artists of the period, like Spirit, It’s a Beautiful Day, Kaleidoscope and the Youngbloods, and less well known tracks from artists like Love, Country Joe and the Fish and the Doobie Brothers. Those 40 year old productions still retain an attractive freshness. If you’ve never heard them before, that must mean they count as more than mere nostalgia, mustn’t it?