Music for nothing

Two jaded rock fans take their ears — and sanity — to the max and tune in to 95.7 Max FM in a 24-hour listening orgy featuring a computer playing "whatever it wants, whenever it feels like it"
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› a&eletters@sfbg.com We're living in a golden age of commercial radio in the Bay Area: It's now possible to hear "Brandy" by Looking Glass on at least four stations. Ladies and gentlemen, meet 95.7 Max FM, the station that plays whatever it wants, whenever it feels like it, as long as it was a Top 40 hit between 1970 and 1995. Max FM, the station that never plays the same song in the same day, as long as you don't consider John Cougar Mellencamp's "R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A." and Huey Lewis and the News' "The Heart of Rock ’n' Roll" to be the same song. Max FM is part of the wider "Variety Hits" movement that's been shaking up the airwaves in the last two years. Countless FM stations are firing their on-air talent and concocting identities based on computer-generated playlists and smart-assy yet avuncular personas. Usually played by a single vaguely familiar commercial actor, the voice-overs provide the attitude during the seemingly endless interstitials that have replaced the human DJs. The personae’s names vary — Jack, Bob, Max — but they share a certain rock-solid, Rotary Club cachet. They're names scientists give to captive chimps. Names of high-end teddy bears. Names that survivors of ritual abuse give to their multiple personalities. Guy names. Whatever the local moniker, the Jack-Bob-Ben-Dave-Max aesthetic is multifaceted, encompassing everything from Adult Hits to Variety Alternative to Adult Variety. Granted, the playlist is a cut below what you might find on Cameron Crowe's Ultimate Megamix: it's Don Henley and Billy Squier instead of the Eagles and Led Zeppelin. Still, there's an element of surprise in the so-called "train wreck" segues that are the format's bread and butter. Stick around for long enough and you'll hear blues (the Fabulous Thunderbirds' "Tuff Enuff"), Afrobeat (Paul Simon's "Call Me Al"), and even reggae (the first 10 seconds of the Police's "Roxanne") — possibly all within the same set. What follows is an attempt to crack the Variety Hits–slash–Max FM code in one nonstop 24-hour sitting. CHRONOLOGY 7:58 p.m. First four songs: Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark,” Edwin Starr's "War," John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses," and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." An earnest heartland vibe, but nothing too objectionable so far. 8:35 p.m. Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing." One of the station's mottoes is "Max FM: The songs you forgot you remembered," and they're not joking. When you hear the guitars break in, you realize just how kick-ass this song really is. Just kidding. Oliver Sacks should write a book about those of us who are immune to the chill that shoots down the spine after recognizing the first three chords. 9:23 p.m. Following a whopping 16 consecutive male artists, token female-fronted act Blondie weighs in with "The Tide is High" — followed by the Boss, U2, and Elton John. The male-heavy playlist reinforces our image of the archetypal Max FM listener as a dude who bought one of the first CD players in the mid-’80s and then built his collection around a string of strategic BMG and Columbia House memberships: lots of greatest hits collections, lots of middling white-guy rock. 10:18 p.m. Parliament's "We Want the Funk." This one came out of left field. "I really wanted to hate this station," admits Will York. "But I have to say, I like a solid one-fourth of the songs they play." For the record, this is the second song by an African American artist in three hours. The first: Phil Bailey, in collaboration with Phil Collins on the soul-dead classic "Easy Lover." 11:18 p.m. King Harvest's "Dancing in the Moonlight." Haven't heard this one in a while. Another musty oldie-but-sure-enough goodie. 11:35 p.m. Just when you start to fall in love with the station, they turn around and blast you right in the package with some insipid ’80s fossil like Starship's "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." 11:39 p.m. And they follow it up with Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel F." Wow. Music at its worst.

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