Underground Radio in the late 1960’s

I grew up on radio. I can remember having a spirited discussion with a classmate in the third grade about which New York AM DJ’s played the best music.

I discovered FM radio in 1968. At this time there was an FCC rule that stations couldn’t have the same programming on FM as they had on AM radio. So, since AM radios were ubiquitous – every car had one – they kept their top 40 pop music on the AM band. Until about 1966 FM was home mostly to classical music and middle of the road muzak like you would hear in doctors office waiting rooms.

One early pioneer of free form underground programming in New York was WBAI, Pacifica radio. Bob Dylan would occasionally drop by to converse with Bob Fass and even take phone calls. This was the station to listen to if you were active in counterculture politics and wanted to know where the next protest was going to be. However, WBAI was listener supported, so they could get away with this.

In 1966, WOR FM decided to try an experiment. AM DJ’s Murray the K (Kaufman), Scott Muni, Rosko, and Johnny Michaels would play songs that they thought had potential, rather than the top sellers. They were the first to play Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, for example. Murray the K’s show was particularly successful (for FM) and was influential in introducing many rock artists who would not have been played on AM.

But soon, consultants were hired and they tried to censor what was played. First, Murray the K quit and then Rosko (who quit on the air, explaining his reasons for doing so) , and Scott Muni, and Johnny Michaels.

Both Rosko and Muni went to WNEW, where they decided to launch their own experiment. This is where I first heard the type of rock, folk, blues, and soul music that was not being played on mainstream radio.

While AM stations preferred two and a half minute songs ( so they could fit more commercials in) FM rock stations in 1968 would play In A Gadda Da Vida for 17 minutes. I always imagined that the DJ’s would go to the bathroom or out for pizza while this was playing.

Others soon followed WNEW. I also remember listening to Brother John on WABC FM (later known as WPLJ) as well as jazz station WRRV. WPLJ, like WNEW would carry live broadcasts of concerts, as well as live performances from recording studios. WPLJ was the source for Elton John’s live album 11-17-70. They also hosted the Allman Brothers live from A&R studios, while WNEW broadcast the closing of the Fillmore East and Bruce Springsteen at the Bottom Line.

WNEW FM had a good run. I remember when Abbey Road was released they played the entire album, only pausing between sides. Scott Muni would have many artists, such as John Lennon and the Grateful Dead, come on his show to hang out and DJ. Rosko would read politically charged poetry between songs. Jonathan Schwartz had impeccable taste in music – his father was a composer of Broadway and Film scores. And, of course, there was Allison Steele, for whom Jimi Hendrix wrote one of his last songs, Nightbird Flying.

This era of unscripted programming without playlists couldn’t last in a capitalist system. It is now relegated to college stations.

Below is my playlist for underground radio circa 1968 – 69. Of course I will randomize the order. These are songs that I remember hearing at the time and that I have copies of. You may, in hindsight see some omissions, for example, Led Zeppelin’s first album. Actually, this didn’t receive much airplay. Their reputation spread by live performance until the second album. Frank Zappa, likewise, wasn’t played on the radio, ironically, until one of his most salacious albums, Live From The Fillmore East was released. I also don’t have some albums from the era. Please, comment and let me know if you have any favorites that were left out.

  1. Albert King – Blues Power
  2. Aretha Franklin – Chain of Fools
  3. Arlo Guthrie – Coming Into Los Angeles
  4. The Beatles – Dear Prudence
  5. The Beatles – When My Guitar Gently Weeps
  6. The Beatles – Blackbird
  7. The Beatles – Here Comes The Sun
  8. Blind Faith – Presence of the Lord
  9. Blodwyn Pig – Dear Jill
  10. Blodwyn Pig – Walk on the Water
  11. Bob Dylan – Visions of Johanna
  12. Bob Dylan – Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again
  13. Bob Dylan – Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands
  14. Buffalo Springfield – Mr. Soul
  15. Buffalo Springfield – Rock and Roll Woman
  16. Canned Heat – On the Road Again
  17. Canned Heat – Going Up The Country
  18. Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys – Track in A
  19. Chuck Berry – Promised Land
  20. Circus Maximus – Wind
  21. Colosseum – Those About to Die
  22. Cream – Spoonful
  23. Cream – I’m So Glad
  24. Creedence Clearwater Revival – Born on the Bayou
  25. Crosby, Stills & Nash – Suite: Judy Blue Eyes
  26. Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up
  27. Donovan – Season of the Witch
  28. Donovan – Barabajagal
  29. Dr. John – Mama Roux
  30. Eric Anderson – Thirsty Boots
  31. Fairport Convention – Who Knows Where the Time Goes
  32. Fleetwood Mac – Oh Well
  33. Freddie King – Going Down
  34. Freddie King – Palace of the King
  35. Grateful Dead – St. Stephen
  36. Grateful Dead – China Cat Sunflower
  37. Incredible String Band – First Girl I Loved
  38. Jack Bruce – Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune
  39. Jack Bruce – Theme for an Imaginary Western
  40. Big Brother and the Holding Company – I Need A Man to Love
  41. Big Brother and the Holding Company – Ball and Chain
  42. Ike and Tina Turner – River Deep, Mountain High
  43. J. J. Jackson – Tenement Halls
  44. Janis Joplin – To Love Somebody
  45. Jeff Beck Group – Rice Pudding
  46. Jefferson Airplane – Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon
  47. Jefferson Airplane – Good Shepherd
  48. Jefferson Airplane – Hey Frederick
  49. Jethro Tull – A New Day Yesterday
  50. Jethro Tull – Serenade to a Cuckoo
  51. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Bold As Love
  52. Jimi Hendrix – All Along The Watchtower
  53. Jimi Hendrix Experience – The Wind Cries Mary
  54. Jimi Hendrix Experience – Red House
  55. Jimmy Reed – Big Boss Man
  56. Joe Cocker – Feelin’ Alright
  57. Joe Cocker – With a Little Help From My Friends
  58. John Lennon, Plastic Ono Band – Cold Turkey
  59. John Mayall – The Laws Must Change
  60. John Phillips – Mississippi
  61. Johnny Winter – Highway 61 Revisited
  62. Joni Mitchell – Chelsea Morning
  63. King crimson – In The Court of the Crimson King
  64. Laura Nyro – Eli’s Coming
  65. Led Zeppelin – What Is And What Should Never Be
  66. Led Zeppelin – Ramble On
  67. Lee Michaels – Heighty Hi
  68. Leonard Cohen – Suzanne
  69. Leonard Cohen – Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
  70. Love – Alone Again Or
  71. Love – You Set the Scene
  72. Leslie West – Blood of the Sun
  73. Leslie West – Dreams of Milk and Honey
  74. Neil Young – Down by the River
  75. Nina Simone – I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free
  76. Otis Redding – Hard to Handle
  77. Otis Redding – I Can’t Turn You Loose
  78. Phil Ochs – Pleasures of the Harbor
  79. Pink Floyd – The Nile Song
  80. Procol Harum – A Salty Dog
  81. Procol Harum – Juicy John Pink
  82. Rhinoceros – That Time of the Year
  83. Rhinoceros – Top of the Ladder
  84. Richie Havens – No Opportunity Necessary, No experience Needed
  85. Richie Havens – Just Like A Woman
  86. Rod Stewart – Street Fighting Man
  87. Santana – Soul Sacrifice
  88. Simon & Garfunkel – America
  89. Simon & Garfunkel – A Hazy Shade of Winter
  90. Sly and the Family Stone – I Want to take You Higher
  91. Taj Mahal – Take A Giant Step
  92. Taj Mahal – Corinna
  93. Terry Reid – Silver white Light
  94. The Animals – Sky Pilot
  95. The Band – The Weight
  96. The Band – King Harvest (Has Surely Come)
  97. The Blues Project – Flute Thing
  98. The Byrds – You Ain’t Going Nowhere
  99. The Byrds – I See You
  100. The Byrds – Renaissance Fair
  101. The Doors – Break on Through (To the Other Side)
  102. The Doors – Love Me Two Times
  103. The Flock – Clown
  104. The Free Design – Kites Are Fun
  105. The Moody Blues – Legend of a Mind
  106. The Moody Blues – Ride My See-Saw
  107. The Nice – She Belongs to Me
  108. The Rolling Stones – Connection
  109. The Rolling Stones – No expectations
  110. The Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter
  111. The Who – Magic Bus
  112. The Who – I Can See For Miles
  113. The Who – I’m Free
  114. The Who – We’re Not Gonna Take It
  115. Them – Gloria
  116. Them – Here Comes The Night
  117. Tim Hardin – If I Were A Carpenter
  118. Tim Hardin – Reason to Believe
  119. Tom rush – No Regrets
  120. Townes Van Zandt – None But The Rain
  121. Traffic –  Pearly Queen
  122. Traffic – Dear Mr. Fantasy
  123. Van Morrison – T. B. Sheets

9 thoughts on “Underground Radio in the late 1960’s

  1. I lived in NYC (Queens) between 1969 and 1973 and yes, it was a great time for radio as well as concerts. I heard that Elton John WPLJ thing as it was being broadcast. He was a rocker back then. I did go to the Fillmore a few times but alas, missed the final show. I wasn’t aware it was broadcast. Has that been preserved anywhere? Scott Muni, Jonathan Schwarz, Alliston Steele – yeah, listened to them all. Also used to go the Schaefer Central Park shows which is where, among others, I first saw the original Allman Brothers Band.

    I also remember one station – can’t remember which one – maybe doing a fundraiser and them playing ‘Layla’ pretty relentlessly. So while the world had not yet caught up to that album, it was definitely hot there.

    I eventually moved to Boston and listened to another great pillar of underground radio, the late lamented WBCN. There is a book out about that station during that era called ‘Radio Free Boston’ which is on my to-read list. Anyway, thanks for the memories.

  2. I grew up in Detroit…attended Wayne State U. which was one of the more “left” and liberal U’s in the country.. Listened to WABX…legendary FM station. I did find the heyday of underground radio was say, 1967 to 1969 as commercialism slowly but surely creeped in and eventually took over..as early as 1970.

    I am still fascinated with that period of time….flower power…rise of FM radio…race riots close to home..blacklights!

    I have a thumb with about 1000 entries of music, commercials, and misc from that period. Since there was not a wealth of WABX airchecks out there, I have included airchecks personalities, ads, from various FM around the country. It all plays like it did back then…if I goofed anywhere, you can’t find it.

  3. I was in Ann Arbor MI at the time listening to their underground stations, WABX was the mainstay. Detroit was Rock City, I think we liked hard rock more than elsewhere. You mentioned that Led Zeppelin’s first album didn’t get airplay. In Detroit I remember being transfixed, standing in the kitchen listening as they played the whole first album all the way through.

    1. Yeah, back then music seemed to catch on differently in various regions. I once watched a multi media presentation about rock in the 1970’s and the presenter was from the West coast. I asked him afterward why he totally ignored jazz-rock like the Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc. and he replied, “Oh, that was more of an East coast thing.”

  4. Very good list. I started listening to FM around the same time as you, my local station in the ’60s was KPRI and they had a studio in downtown San Diego. A popular west coast band was Spirit, and I remember KPRI playing Mechanical World, Fresh Garbage, Uncle Jack….. all from the first Spirit album.

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