Listening Post

Jun 9, 1999 at 4:00 am
SCHLOCK-ROCK RADIO: Ready to relive the glory days of your youth, or, if you're not that old, hear what your parents were jamming to in the days of yore -- the '70s and '80s? Fear not: Classic-Rock Alley -- that section of the FM dial between 93.7 and 97.1 -- can provide you with all the retro-hell reminiscing you need to recapture your feathered-hair, dope-smoking youth.

Start scanning at 93.7 FM ("The Mix") and move from there to classic-rock stalwart 94.7, KSHE. From there it's on to 96.3 (K-HITS) and then, finally, to 97.1, "The Rock," all stations with some sort of classic-rock format. It's both frightening and fun, scanning up and down the alleyway: Move from Billy Squier's "My Kind of Lover" to Foghat's "Slow Ride" to (ugh) Brewer and Shipley's "One Toke Over the Line" to Rush's "The Trees" ("The maples want more sunlight, and the oaks ignore their pleas"). In fact, more stations are playing the music 20 years later than there were at the time these songs were hits, the result, no doubt, of that choice demographic with all the money -- damn them all -- the baby boomers.

"I think it's a coincidence that we're all so close together," says Mike Watermann, program director of K-HITS. "I worked at KSD for 13 years, and when we switched to classic rock in 1987, we were just down from KSHE at that time, so there was a lot of confusion there. And then with K-HITS' being at 96.3 and The Rock being at 97.1, when The Rock flipped to classic rock, people are calling us and saying, 'How come you're playing 'Paradise City' over and over again?' Well, it's not us, and we don't know any more about this than you do."

Of course, there are subtle variations among the stations, and the program directors of each station are experts at hair-splitting. Want to know the differences?

Mike Wheeler, The Mix: "The industry term would be a 'hot AC' -- hot adult contemporary. It is not quite a soft-rock station, goes from '70s, '80s and '90s and features everything from classic rock to pop music. We also play a lot more pop and less rock than (the other stations) do; even though we do have a lot of rock in the format, we have a lot of pop, too. It's a whole bunch of disparate songs that somehow hang together." (Side note: The Mix is the station that uses the dumber-than-dumb phrase "the greatest hits of the '80s, '90s and '70s." Asked why the station doesn't list the decades in the more logical chronological order, promotions director Mark Dickinson replies simply: "Well, what fun would that be? But also, that's what we play: most '80s, a lot of '90s and some '70s. It's just something goofy" -- an understatement.)

Rick Balis, KSHE program director: "We're a station that's predominantly classic in nature but does continue to play some current product, and throughout time, remaining true to that has included a dodge to the left or a dodge to the right, depending on the competitive arena, meaning the number of stations that are playing similar music or, at least, rock music of some type." Translated, that means that KSHE-95 has always been some sort of classic-rock station -- but you know that. Depending on the competition, they'll veer toward playing new music more than classics or, as is the case now, stick with the rock staples.

Mike Watermann, K-HITS: "Pop-slash-rock from the -- well, the focus is on the '70s, but we do expand into the '60s and into the mid-'80s. So it's that era, but it would be mostly music that hit the charts, so it would be pop, but that has a rock leaning to it. As soft as Jim Croce and James Taylor but not like Bread, Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. We have a more rock focus, but still (we play) pop hits that should all be familiar to the people listening to our radio station, which are essentially 30-44-year-olds."

Marty Linck, program director of The Rock: "(We have) a hard-rock format. 'Classic rock that really rocks,' we call it, with a concentration not only on '70s hard rock but a lot of the '80s and early-'90s stuff, too. A lot of the music like AC/DC, Guns n' Roses, Def Leppard, Mstley CrYe hadn't been played in the market in a long time, so we saw a hole there, and the listeners have just had a hunger for it and really responded to it."

Taken together, the four stations create a time machine that, depending on your mood, can either be laughably lame or wistfully wonderful. I mean, really, how much Journey does the average listener need? Apparently a hell of a lot: Scan for a half-hour from station to station, and you'll inevitably hear them on one of the stations. And though there are differences among them -- The Rock and KSHE both rock, seem to be aimed at guys and absolutely love Van Halen and Rush; The Mix and K-HITS are much more "lite" and are admittedly geared more toward the ladies -- skip from one to another and you'll inevitably get flustered. "People get confused because they scan a lot," says Watermann. "I even scan. I used to just have my buttons set, but now I go from station to station looking for a song I like. I guess that's what everybody does, so there's going to be confusion because there are stations playing the same songs. And you can hear a song, and I can tell maybe not by that song, but by the next song they play, what station it is."

To help reveal the subtle variations among the four stations, the RFT polled each of the programmers to learn where they draw the line with their classic-rock offerings. The gestalt should provide the curious with a primer for classic-rock programming in St. Louis, if you need one. And is anyone else not the least bit upset that "Dog and Butterfly" no longer gets airplay in St. Louis? Apparently, according to one of the program directors, it "didn't test well." But "One Toke Over the Line" did? Ouch.

GIMME SOME LIP: At one point during Sunday's Third Lip Cabaret performance at Cicero's, the entire crowd was transfixed on a dozen or so red balloons. Like a group of kindergartners, the crowd was lunging and leaping to keep the balloons afloat. Occasionally a misfit with a cigarette would pop one of them, which would set off a chain reaction of like-minded aggression. Amid the frenzy, a human coyote howl would spark a chain reaction of similar howls, until the balloons and howls and popping intertwined with the shrieking of someone pinching the air out of a balloon. The scene was chaotic and blissful, the result of the Cabaret's freeform devotion to organized confusion.

The Third Lip Cabaret has been throwing variety shows around town for a few months now under the direction of Mike Marwit and Eric Hall. Their intention is, according to their press release, to expand "St. Louis' horizons by spotlighting the wealth of performing arts talent the city has to offer." Marwit, who comes from a performance-art background, started pushing his art a few years ago at warehouse space on Washington but ran into a few problems: "Performance art is hard to push," he says. "It's got a bad reputation -- it's been made up to be pretentious, ridiculous and no-talent-involved stuff, so people are weary of it. So I figured it would be a good idea to mix and match all the different talents out there that weren't getting played. I felt this way, and I figured there were some other people who felt like they had something to give and weren't getting anyplace to show it. Plus, I always wanted to push art in this city because I feel like it needs it. This city is lacking in education around art, and they don't know what they have. Everybody leaves. We have a Masada every summer. Everybody splits." Enter the Third Lip Cabaret.

Sunday's incarnation at Cicero's featured music by Tory Z. Starbuck, Panicsville, Hall and DJ Ses; performance art by Marwit (who orchestrated the balloon incident), Derrick Mosley and the Brand X Comedy Troupe. Spoken-word pieces by Lawrence Revard and Mark Dischinger (whose inspired short fiction featuring one Inspector Seven recalled the work of Harlan Ellison and David Foster Wallace).

Tory Z. Starbuck was wearing one of his choice triangular new-wave outfits that revealed as much flesh as fabric (the kind in which you could see, er, everything, but you didn't really wanna); he and his band have a vision that combines Bowie-esque art-rock with updated blustery synthetics and Starbuck's deep retro yowl (say what you will about Tory, but he sure is consistent). At times you don't know whether to be inspired or embarrassed, but I get the sense that that's the point. Panicsville guy Andy Ortmann was wearing a leather S&M mask as he did a choreographed song and dance to a Yoko Ono song -- then proceeded to fuck with his Korg for a half-hour.

The highlight, though, was Hall's synthetic compositions, which recalled the organized beats of Boards of Canada and the Aphex Twin. The music he created was at times gentle, at times a bit abrasive, but always a curious and engaging examination of computer-based beat music. He leans toward the ambient side of the music but never strays into boring soundscapes. Instead, melodies and rhythms collide and merge into one, and the result is some of the most imaginative music in the city.

The next Third Lip Cabaret performance is at Cicero's on Sunday, July 11. Mark your calendar.

-- Randall Roberts