Rock ‘n’ Radio by Ian Howarth – Book review
Rock ‘n’ Radio – In the summer of 1970, my dad used to go to a lot of Montreal Expos games at Jarry Park. And every morning following the game in question, he would leave for me on his dresser a copy of the game programme magazine for my growing collection of sports programmes.
One particular morning following an Expos game that season, the magazine wasn’t there. Instead, it was a record album that my dad told me later was given out to everyone who attended the game that night. It had a burgundy cover with photos of six individuals who I never heard of before, that were surrounded by gold picture frames, such as Ralph Lockwood, Roger Scott (whose haggard-looking appearance prompted my brother to call him “the vampire with a sore throat”) and Charles P. Rodney Chandler. It was called “Good Guys Gold”, and was a compilation album of selected top 40 hit songs from the late 60s (such as “Light My Fire”) which were played on CFOX, a popular Montreal top 40 radio station of that period, in which its studios were located in the West Island.
In a way, this was my formal introduction to the world of Montreal top 40 radio and its stable of wildly popular deejays. For the next decade, I alternated my radio listening habits between CKGM and CHOM. I was a devoted listener to Ralph Lockwood’s morning show, where I laughed out loud to many of his on air comedy shtick (and his “How’s Your Bird?” buttons were prized possessions amongst his fans), and Marc “Mais Oui” Denis’ bilingual patter as one-third of the station’s “Connection Francais”; and on CHOM, got exposed to soon-to-be classic rock albums on “Les Deux Faces”, and heard British-born announcer Doug Pringle interview some of the biggest names in rock music of the mid and late 70s on “The Pringle Program”. I even won one of the first rock albums I ever owned thanks to a CKGM listener phone-in contest (it was “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings).
However, by the mid-1980s, the glory days of top 40 radio in Montreal began to fade, with many of its deejays going to greener pastures at radio stations west and south of Montreal, and its stations succumbing to numerous format changes and corporate ownership. If you are a baby boomer, and are feeling quite nostalgic about the days when listening to commercial AM and FM radio was fun and had a great deal of personality, then you will certainly enjoy Ian Howarth’s thoroughly researched nostalgia trip of a book Rock ‘n’ Radio.
The book focuses on the three decades that made up the glory years of rock radio stations in Montreal (the 60s, 70s and 80s), and in particular, the four stations that captured the attention of teenage listeners during that golden era: CKGM, CFCF, CFOX and CHOM (as well as its pre-1971 incarnation CKGM-FM). The story is told through profiles of the personalities that made it all happen in the broadcast booth and the front office, from Dave Boxer and Buddy Gee (whose rivalry for listeners between 1964 and 1968 helped to build the popularity of top 40 radio in Montreal), to Bob Gillies (who with “Lord Timothy” emceed the Rolling Stones’ first Montreal concert at the Maurice Richard Arena in 1965), to Mary Anne Carpentier (the CKGM traffic reporter who became a mainstay of Ralph Lockwood’s morning show), to the late Denis Grondin (who was one of CHOM’s pioneering bilingual deejays), to Geoff Stirling, the Nova Scotia native, whose astute business acumen, laid back style – not to mention his passion for Eastern religions – helped to make CKGM and CHOM major forces on the Montreal radio scene. As well, Howarth pays fitting tribute to those figures who were not necessarily behind the mike, but whose contributions to the Montreal music scene helped boost the popularity of Montreal radio, including rock concert promoter extraordinaire Donald “Donald K. Donald” Tarlton and local rock bands like J.B. and the Playboys and The Haunted.
Howarth, through countless interviews and impeccable research, recounts many of the stunts and anecdotes that these deejays pulled off or were involved with that helped to make listening to their broadcasts quite unique experiences. There was Dave Boxer’s petition to convince the Beatles to include Montreal on their 1965 tour schedule, following their not-so-pleasant experience during their two-show appearance at the Forum the year before (Boxer presented the signed petition to the group in London and although the Fab Four didn’t agree to return to Montreal, they agreed to give Boxer an exclusive interview, which he later aired on his CFCF show); then there was Ralph Lockwood’s stunt during the 1973 Grey Cup festivities, in which early on his Saturday morning broadcast, placed a surprise phone call to his friend (and former Montreal Alouettes player) “Crescent Street” Mike Widger at his hotel room in Toronto and play it live on the air, only to have a strange woman answer the phone before Widger got the chance to answer it; and perhaps one of the strangest, yet rarely reported incidents to hit the Montreal radio scene, which happened during the midst of the October Crisis of 1970, in which a small group of youthful FLQ supporters “broke into” CHOM’s Greene Avenue studios and “took over” the airwaves by continuously ranting about the FLQ’s agenda for Quebec live on the air, while pausing every so often to play some Led Zeppelin tunes until then-station general manager Jim Sward convinced them to quietly surrender to the police four hours later.
When one reads Rock ‘n’ Radio, the general impression that you get is that these deejays and front office people shared a deep passion for rock music and a career in radio playing hit rock songs and rock albums, and would do anything to reach that Montreal radio mecca, whether it be sacrificing promising careers in other fields or going on the path of working at radio stations in every medium-sized city or small town across Canada. And once they reached Montreal, would tirelessly do countless personal appearances at high school dances, community teen dances, rock concerts and store openings to maintain their high profile within their community of devoted listeners.
Rock ‘n’ Radio is a fascinating book that will certainly evoke plenty of Montreal radio memories for those who yearn for the days of “the Boss with the Hot Sauce”, the “Dean of Montreal”, Ralph “the Birdman” Lockwood’s cast of mostly politically-incorrect characters, or Charles P. Rodney Chandler’s exclusive live bedside broadcasts during John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-In for Peace at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. And unfortunately, thanks to large media companies swallowing up a lot of these stations – and changing their programming formats – those days when listening to radio was a fun, prize-winning experience are no longer with us. All we have are the memories, and this book happily brings them back to us.