Steely Dan’s Link To WKRP In Cincinnati

by Kevin Burton

   It was 1978 when FM radio overtook AM. But the song that marked the occasion was sort of a medium-sized hit.  

   We’re talking “FM” by Steely Dan. 

   So what’s your definition of a hit song? 

   Is it based on how much it sells? How high it gets on the charts? Does it matter what cultural impact the song has?

   What if a song reached only number 22 on the American charts? Is that a hit?  That’s where FM peaked in June of 1978.

   In honor of the new year, I got the notion to write about songs that peaked at number 22. To make that work, you have to have the courage of your convictions. It seems heretofore nobody has been silly enough to try such a thing. 

   That makes me, perhaps, an overachiever?

   Think of a baseball player who makes it to your favorite big league team, but then does nothing to distinguish himself.  You maybe think of him as a sorry player. But he has dominated several levels of organized ball just to get to that point.  

   Consider also, FM raced to number one on the Spanish charts.

   The band that some consider the coolest was at its hottest at the time, having just released the critically-acclaimed album “Aja” the year before. 

   “Walter Becker and Donald Fagen wrote this song for the 1978 movie “FM,” which was the precursor to the television series “WKRP In Cincinnati,” according to www.songfacts.com.

   Fagen told American Songwriter that he and Becker wrote the song in California.  “There was a film called FM and we were asked to do the title song,” Fagen said. “I said ‘does it have to have any specific words?’ And they said ‘No, it just has to be about FM radio.’”

   “We wrote that very quickly, in one or two days and we also recorded it very quickly,” Fagen said.

   Johnny Mandel, who had worked with Frank Sinatra and Count Basie among others, wrote the chart and a string arrangement for the song.

   Fagen felt the song could have been a bigger hit if the movie had been more successful, according to the song’s Wikipedia page. “The song was a hit, but I think we should have seen the movie before we committed ourselves,” Fagen said in 2007. “As you know, it wasn’t a very successful movie.”

   Fagen nevertheless remains satisfied with the song. “I feel like we didn’t compromise on the song at all to make it program music,” Fagen said. “I enjoyed doing it, and I thought it was a very successful piece of movie music.”

   I always thought the “no static at all” lyric had something to do with not getting any static from the girls, and didn’t only refer to the clear FM signal. That doesn’t appear to be the case. Kind of fits though, don’t you think?

   The song was written quickly and recorded quickly but nevertheless contains an incredible of complexity. 

   “Musically, it is a complex jazz-rock composition driven by its bass, guitar and piano parts, typical of the band’s sound from this period,” according to Wikipedia.

   “It saw them moving ever further down the path of sophisticated jazz-flavored song structures,” reads a piece on www.udiscovermusic.com. “FM,” the single, was of even greater interest to the band’s legion of devotees because it wasn’t on Aja, nor, surprisingly, did it appear on their first Greatest Hits collection, released by ABC a few months after the single, in late November 1978. It wasn’t available on a Steely Dan album until the 1982 release of the Gold retrospective.”
   FM “featured Fagen’s distinctive vocals, Becker on bass, and studio A-listers such as Toto’s Jeff Porcaro on drums,” reads the website. “The track also had the distinction of backing vocals by no fewer than three of the EaglesDon Henley, Glenn Frey and Timothy B. Schmit.”

   Four versions of FM exist, including one “unauthorized by the band or its record label,” according to Wikipedia.  “It was created by AM radio stations that played the single as part of their Top 40 format. AM music radio had steadily been losing listeners to FM stations, due to the latter’s ability to broadcast in stereo and with minimal interference (‘no static at all’).”

    “The year of “FM”‘s release, 1978, was the first year that FM stations topped their AM counterparts in total listeners. Many of the latter did not want to promote their competition, but still had to play the song, so they spliced in the harmonically compatible “A” from the chorus of the song “Aja” (never released as a single) to make the chorus say “AM” instead.

   That to me is super crazy. If the Wikipedia account is correct, I wonder first, how these radio stations collaborated on such a thing, second how they avoided a lawsuit and third, why the publicity from such a stunt didn’t push the song into the top 20 or even top 10.

   I had never head the AM version until I just called it up on You Tube.

   Crazy.

   So here’s to 2022 and songs that peaked at 22.

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