Monday, May 2, 2011

ZZ Top - "Heard It On the X" From the Album Fandango

ZZ Top Fandango Album coverThere was only one single taken from ZZ's fourth record, and this marvelously syncopated blues beauty wasn't it. Though it should have been.

Now, as one of the world's foremost Caucasian admirers of women who put the the 'max' in gluteus maximus, I'm certainly not gonna have too many issues with any song called "Tush," which was the track that London Records did in fact select as the solitary single from Fandango.

Certainly, Zeta-4 and WSHE, the rock stations I listened to at various times in my high school days, each played the hell out of it, and I bet it was the same with rock stations across the country. Before the massive, MTV-fueled success of Eliminator, "Tush" was probably ZZ's signature tune. And if I were listening today, I'm sure I'd still be hearing it twice daily on the lame-ass classic rock station in town.

Still and all, "Heard It On The X" is a better tune than "Tush", with better drumming, a better guitar solo, and a better backstory.

A waaay better backstory. In fact, some folks in the know on the whole thing say it's the best story of the century just past.
Do you remember
Back in 1966?
Country Jesus, hillbilly blues,
That's where I learned my licks.
Oh, from coast to coast and line to line
In every county there,
I'm talkin' 'bout that outlaw X
That was cuttin' through the air.

Anywhere, y'all,
Everywhere, y'all,
I heard it, I heard it,
I heard it on the X.
We can all thank Doctor B
Who stepped across the line.
With lots of watts he took control,
The first one of its kind.
So listen to your radio
Most each and every night
'Cause if you don't I'm sure you won't
Get to feeling right.

I. Lots of Watts

Now, most people, Gibbons 'n' Hill 'n' Beard included, suggest that it all begins with Doctor B, with quackery and snake oil and shady preacher men.

And we'll get to all that, but--especially since this blog is called La Historia de la Musica Rock--it's probably worth noting first that power is very rock-and-roll, wattage and volume and dangerous amounts of electricity.

So before we get all Tex-Mex with it, before we bring in the charlatans and the con-men, we should talk about Powel Crosley, 'cause it was he who brought WLW online, and it was he who therefore invented the kind of super-high power North American radio station that young Billy Gibbons would one day cotton to.

During the second quarter of the 20th century, Powel Crosley just about owned the city of Cincinnati. He mostly sold a boatload of affordable radios and affordable refrigerators, but he also sold affordable cars and affordable phonographs, and he owned the Cincinnati Reds and their ballpark, to boot.

Shortly after Crosley got into the radio business, it struck him that he might should also get into the broadcasting end of things. He started WLW with a 50 watt transmitter in 1922, and by 1928, had increased the power of his transmitter to 50,000 watts, figuring that the stronger his transmitter, the weaker (and cheaper) his mass-produced radios could be.

Schematic for WLW's 500 kW transmitterThat worked so well that Crosley sought out and got permission from the Feds to jack things up to half a million watts. Armed with his new "experimental" license, Crosley went to RCA and General Electric both, and had them produce the transmitter to spec. By the time it was done, the thing was 15 feet high, 57 feet wide, and right around 30 feet deep. All tube as befit the time of course, and each of its two modulation transformers alone weighed 37,000 pounds.

Yikes. Add in the 750-foot radio tower and Crosley's station wasn't just ruling the nighttime skies above the Great Plains up into Canada, and down into Mexico. The station had a potential worldwide reach, and in one case its shows took a very special request from Buckingham Palace, England.

With its newfound audience, and a roster of artists that included Fats Waller and The Mills Brothers, WLW's advertising revenue went through the roof. New applications for the "experimental" 500K transmitting power from jealous competition poured into the Federal Radio Commission's office, but the Feds, suddenly gun-shy after hearing the horror stories of the little 10 and 20 kW guys 500 and a 1000 miles away who'd been steamrolled by the immensity of WLW's signal, denied them all, and in fact revoked WLW's license at that power for 1939.

It was called the Wheeler Resolution. The Act limited radio stations on American soil to an absolute limit of 50,000 watts, and it remains in effect to this day. WLW's power during the 1930's has not since been matched in America.

Which is of course not to say that it hasn't been matched or even surpassed in Mexico.

II. Doctor B Who Crossed The Line

John R Brinkley Goat Gland AdAs has been hinted at, John Romulus Brinkley was a quack and a charlatan. He sold his bottles of colored water, for sure, but became notorious for an idea that may be unique in the history of medical fraud: that transplanting goat testicles into men could cure a man of "sexual weakness," or prostate problems.

Brinkley, like Crosley, seized upon radio quickly as the way to most effectively sell his wares and services. In 1923, operating out of a town called Milford in Kansas, Brinkley started KFKB ("Kansas Folks Know Best"), which played some roots country (including that of the Lonesome Cowboy Roy Faulkner), some gospel and some string band, but mostly ran the crooked and long-winded advertising pitches of Brinkley's.

Aware no doubt of WLW's increase two years earlier to 50,000 watts, Brinkley applied for an increase of his own in 1930. But he'd made some enemies at the Kansas City Star, who had a going concern of their own on the AM waves, and who had also begun some investigations into Brinkley's blatant malpractice, finding for example that Brinkley had signed the death certificates of 52 former patients. Upshot was, not only was Brinkley's request denied, but he was also stripped of his license to practice medicine in the State of Kansas.

Brinkley's first impulse after hearing these two pieces of news was to run for governor of Kansas (and he almost won).

The second was to buy a radio station in Mexico.

Which he did. Just as Brinkley did not invent high wattage commercial radio in America, so too did he not invent the border blaster. Border Blasters--comparatively high powered stations just on the other side of the US-Mexico line, with content designed for America, rather than for the Mexican state they supposedly served--had been around for a few years when Brinkley bought his station.

Brinkley was, however, the first to get ridiculous with the concept, and I'm sure Crosley back in Ohio approved. XER, located in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico, right across the border from Del Rio, Texas, had a mere 50,000 watts when it signed on in August 1932, but it's just as well, considering that the Mexican authorities (under pressure from the same people who'd run Brinkley out of Kansas) shut it down shortly thereafter.

When Brinkley (one assumes) had paid the proper bribes and opened his second station in September of 1935, he re-used the XER facilities but brought a new 500 kW transmitter with him. Designed by some of the same engineers who had worked for Crosley (though it wasn't branded an RCA), the insane new transmitter used eight water-cooled vacuum tubes that were each eight foot tall. The station's signal reached all the way to Canada, locals often picked up the station with their dental fillings and barbed-wire fencing, fowl who aviated themselves too near the antenna when things were humming found themselves french-fried, the antenna created its own green-cast aurora for Christ's sake, and the call letters that the Mexican authorities issued for the cause of all this mayhem were X-E-R and -A.

The Carter FamilyThe station was run pretty much as Brinkley had run the stations before it: populist entertainment leavened with radio preachermen and long infomercials for Brinkley's clinic in downtown Del Rio. Prominent country music and hillbilly artists who broadcast for XERA included The Pickard Family, Cowboy Slim Rinehart, and The Prairie Sweethearts. In 1938 they even signed The Carter Family. Though Brinkley--always on the Federales' hit list--would get shut down for good in 1939, and die, broken and disgraced three years later, he had altered and in a strange way almost even legitimatized the border radio game forever after.

III. Country Jesus, Hillbilly Blues
     Dusty Hill, to Spin magazine in 1985:

They'll sell segments to anybody. There are a lot of preachers on there. I heard them one time selling autographed prayer cloths. They were to put on your radio when you're listening to these programs. But this one was autographed by Jesus himself. Then you'd hear a 15-minute country/western show. Then there'd be a blues show. You could just buy your slot and do whatever. They didn't have a whole lot of restrictions . . . .
It would be ten years before the facilities used by XERA would be used again, and twenty before they had another supercharged transmitter, but when the Golden Age came again in 1959, it was powered not by country and hillbilly, but by R & B and the blues.

XERA had been reborn in '49 as XERF and in '59 the new station was re-organized, and brought a new 250 kilowatt transmitter online. For a couple years, the station continued doing what it had been doing since '49, which was to alternate the quack medicine ads with the preachermen, with musical content fairly limited and the musical glory days of The Carter Family pretty much forgotten. You could have driven your tailfinned beauty from Los Angeles to New York again while never losing the signal, but who would have wanted to?

But then a fellow calling himself Wolfman Jack showed up, and changed the border radio game more than anybody had since Brinkley.

The Wolfman--whose real name was Bob Smith, but why would anyone want to call him that?--would later become associated with what were called "oldies," Bill Haley and The Beach Boys and "Please Please Me"-era Beatles, but at this early date, and with the freedom he found south of the border, he was mostly spinning black artists, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf and James Brown and Johnny Otis and you get the picture, just playing what was good, sure, but also desegregating his playlists in a way that he couldn't have done North of the Rio Grande.

And he was broadcasting in that Trashmen voice of his to what Jean Shepherd had called "the night people." Smith in his role as station manager ceded the early evening to the preachers on a cash-upfront basis, then stepped in at midnight to play the stuff that got everyone excited. And, you know, whoop and holler, and sell some of those things that would put some zing in your ling nuts.

IV. That Outlaw X

The preachermen would show up with sacks of cash around the clock, and the Wolfman had taken to carrying large amounts of the green and crispy at all times, so it was probably not surprising that some of Mexico's lawlesss elements took an interest in the station, as well. There were at least two shootouts at the station, and our lycanthropic DJ hired soon thereafter a personal security force, and began wearing a bandolero.

This was "The X" that ZZ Top are talking about in their song, and it's the sum total: Loads of cash money and doin' the nasty and that smokin' blues backbeat, and Jesus Christ Himself, all stuffed into an armed compound within a stone's throw of the world's tenth-longest international border. If by 1966 the Wolfman had split for safer pastures in Southern California, and begun the decline into pop schlock that would one day see him guest star on The Odd Couple, the template he'd created held on for at least a couple more years before the Federales signed a treaty with Uncle Sam and shut the whole fucking thing down.

Just as Mexican border radio is not the only reason people have ever heard of The Carter Family, it's also not the reason Muddy Waters got his songs covered by rock artists of the '60's and 70's. But stations like XERF and DJ's like Wolfman Jack (at least in his earliest days) were absolutely and positively part of the reason.

Wolfman Jack - 250,000 watts of power.mp3

The Wolfman Givin' out the Call Letters and the reason at XERF

File Under: Spoken Word

ZZ Top - Fandango - 08 Heard It On the X.mp3

File Under: Tejas

1 comment:

TAD said...

R: This is great stuff. Back in '74 when I was growin up in Idaho we useta get XRock80 blasting up from El Paso, coming in on the radio late at nite just like they were right next door. Course I can't tell you what they PLAYED -- it was a long time ago. I imagine it was the same stuff as everybody else, only LOUDER. There was a station in Oklahoma City that useta blast up thru the Midwest 2 -- 4 all I know, they're probly both still doin it. Hope so -- it made spinnin the AM dial on those late summer nites a lot more fun. Thanx 4 the history....