Radio, Radio

Great lyricists can inhabit a character the way great novelists do. Occasionally, that character might be an amplified version of themselves; occasionally it’s an entirely fictional creation.

Steve Earle is one of the best at it. His songs breathe new life into the aimless spectres of Prohibition moonshiners, GIs coming home from Europe, displaced coal miners and wandering guitar-men alike.

A deep-cut favourite of mine has always been a tune called ‘Satellite Radio’.

The song is about a bleary-eyed, hobbyist DJ (calling himself ‘Big Daddy’) who broadcasts every night into deep space, in the vain hope of attracting some extra-terrestrial attention.

Is there anybody out there - One-two-three - on the satellite radio?

Big Daddy on the air, are you listenin' to me, on the satellite radio?

At the galaxy's end where the stars burn white are you tunin' in and turnin' on?

Is there anybody listenin' to earth tonight on the satellite radio?

Listen Here...

Big Daddy’s satellite radio affords the loneliest of men the preternatural ability to amplify himself into the far reaches of a universe that may, or may not, be listening. It’s a technology of extraordinary power.

The image of the radio has been an evocative lyrical go-to for many great song-writers, though my favourite has always been Van Morrison (who seems able to throw the word away with a particular gypsy-rock insouciance).

The whole of Roger Taylor’s prayer-like ‘Radio Gaga’ is addressed to the radio itself in the redemptive second person - his ‘radio’ (a little like The Buggles’ now-dead Radio Star) is a waning power in the commodified, home-stereo world of the 1980s: a dying Roman God.

For Elvis Costello, the radio is a ‘sound salvation’. Even Sam Cooke’s twisters, young and old, are ‘dancing to the radio’. Both tunes attach a ritualistic, almost religious power to the technology and the way it can move and shake people and populations.

I’ve always felt that there’s something in the word that evokes a strange sense of both the universal and the deeply personal. A machine that can be the same old friend, speaking in different voices, to millions at once. A comforter, an agitator, a breaker of bad news and a voyage of discovery, all at the same time, depending on how you channel it.

I also think that there’s something mystical about the act of ‘tuning in’ that’s been lost to the age of digital and internet radio. Turning a dial through a ghostly world of white noise feels a little like adjusting your consciousness in the search for a meaning greater than yourself (in the same way, I suppose, psychotherapy or the Catholic Mass might do).

I’m sure ‘streaming’, ‘uploading’ and ‘downloading’ may one day take on a symbolic significance of their own as verbs. Language does have a tendency to haul itself through time like a rag and bone man, collecting associative bric a brac that rattles away in our subconscious.

But I think for me, as a millennial obsessed with the music of the mid-to-late twentieth century, they’ll never quite do for me what a well timed reference to the radio does.

Especially if it’s on a Van Morrison record.

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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