When The Shazam tumbled out of Nashville in 1994, they should’ve landed as one of the biggest rock bands in America. Instead, they merely left us with 5 fantastic albums of hard-rocking power pop that lodged them on my list of all-time favorite bands. If you’ve never heard them before, here’s your chance to discover their greatness with a song called “On The Airwaves” – certified one of the Coolest Songs In The World.
“On The Airwaves” (Hans Rotenberry) Copyright 1994, 1999, 2000 Clut Guckle Music (SESAC)
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Welcome to the “I’m in Love With That Song” podcast, where we use the wisdom of Solomon, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus… but maybe not the speed of Mercury, to explore the magic and mysteries of music.
I’m Brad Page, your host here on the Pantheon Podcast network. Each episode, I pick a favorite song of mine and we delve into it together, discovering what makes it a great song. To date, we’ve explored well over 100 songs; this episode features a song that’s been on my to do list since day one. This is one of my favorite songs, from one of my favorite bands ever. You maybe never heard of this band before, and that’s okay, in fact, I envy you a bit because you get to discover this band for the first time. This is The Shazam with a song called “On The Airwaves”.
Shazam was founded around 1994 by Hans Rotenberry. Hans fell in love with music at an early age. His first two favorite singles were Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and “Love Me Do” by the Beatles– off to a pretty good start, I think.
He’d been playing in bands as a guitarist and writing songs, but he was never able to find the right singer. So, probably out of frustration more than anything else, he decided to try singing these songs himself. So he went into the studio with drummer Scott Ballew and producer Brad Jones to record some demos. It worked out well enough that they decided to make it official and put a band together. Hans and Scott recruited a 16-year-old bass player named Mick Wilson, and The Shazam played their first gig on August 11, 1994.
They built an audience the old-fashioned way, by playing shows, including the big power pop festivals. And in 1997, they released their first self-titled album. There’s not a bad song on it. Here’s a track from that record. It’s called “Oh No”.
In 1999, they released their second album, again produced by Brad Jones. It’s called “Godspeed The Shazam”. At this point, they weren’t sure if they’d ever get to make another record, so they really went for it on this album. It’s an all-out, go-for-broke effort. Another killer album. Check out this track, it’s called “Sunshine Tonight”.
Around this time, they were joined by an unofficial fourth member, Jeremy Asbrock. Jeremy had been working with them as a recording engineer and he was a friend of the band, but he was also a great guitar player and he would join them on stage to fill out their sound.
The band headed to the UK for some pretty high-profile gigs, including a BBC event at Abbey Road, and opening for Paul Weller at Earl’s Court.
The record label was looking for some new material to release, something they could get out quick, capitalize on some of the success they were having and make a few bucks to offset the cost of that UK trip. The band didn’t have anything ready, but Hans had a handful of songs that he was working on for a solo album, which they quickly turned into Shazam songs. Hans also had the idea to record a cover version of the Beatles “Revolution Number 9”, which was kind of a dare, but the record company said OK. And so the Shazam did one of the most audacious things I’ve ever heard: their take on “Revolution Number 9”.
So they took their version of “Revolution 9”, along with those repurposed solo songs and a couple of old Shazam leftovers that they re-recorded, and they put them together on a seven song EP that they called “Rev 9”, which was released in 2000.
Now, one of those leftovers was a demo from 1995 that they had never finished. They polished it off and used it as the opening track for the “Rev 9” EP. Little Steven, on his radio show “Underground Garage”, would choose this song as one of the coolest songs in the world. In fact, years later, when Little Steven would release a series of CD’s that collected all of the coolest songs in the world, for Volume One, song number one, he chose this song: “On The Airwaves”.
“On The Airwaves” was performed by Scott Ballew on drums, Mick Wilson on bass (playing an 8-string bass, actually), and Hans Rotenberry on lead vocals and guitars. He also played a Theremin and a bunch of other sound effects, as we’ll hear. The song was produced by Brad Jones.
The song begins with what I think is one of the greatest opening riffs of all time. It’s a big sounding, epic introduction that just demands attention, and that rattling tambourine is a nice addition. Let’s play through the intro. After two times around on the riff, Scott does a drum fill and Mick’s bass follows the guitar.
Then we hear the first of those sound effects at the end of that last chord. Hans is going to pluck at that single guitar string to hold the tension before letting loose with the title of the song, and they break into the main riff.
Speaker C: Essentially, that’s a 4-note part. But there’s so much going on, it sounds massive. First, let’s hear the bass guitar. Mick is playing an 8-string Hamer bass through a Big Muff fuzz pedal.
Then there’s an overdubbed guitar part in the left channel on the final mix. I believe this was played on a Hamer Standard, through either a Vox AC 30 amp or a Peavey Classic 30. There’s also a Big Muff pedal on this guitar, too. And then there’s a bunch of overdubbed instruments playing that same riff. There’s a couple of Theremins, a Mellotron on the saxophone setting, a vocoder, and a bunch of guitars run through various effects.
It makes for one glorious cacophony of sound waves blasting out in all directions.
The Shazam never made a video for the song, but if they did, Hans envisioned them in some post-apocalyptic world, driving across the wasteland, broadcasting their message to all the last surviving misfits.
Here comes the first verse. There’s a slight pause, and then Hans comes in with the vocals. Sounds like he’s doubled his vocals here. Scott is doing some great drumming all through this song. Let’s go back and listen to his drums, especially those tasty little fills.
We hear a couple of guitar parts there. There’s a rhythm guitar part. Let’s hear that. And then there’s a second guitar playing this part:
And for good measure, let’s hear what the bass is doing there. You can really hear that he’s playing an 8-string bass here. Let’s go back and hear that altogether.
Here’s the second verse, and I love this verse.
“Radio of the deevolution, what do you say?
The lunatics, the hit parade,
Don’t listen, Mayday Mayday
Talking about the only thing we know, on the airwaves .
Let’s listen to that vocal track first.
I love that. Now, underneath that, there’s still all of these crazy sound effects going on. The theremin, mellotron, radio static, manipulated tape echo… There’s even a piano part which you’ll hear towards the end. Let’s listen to all of that.
I can picture them barreling across the post-apocalyptic wasteland, broadcasting this out. Let’s go back to the final mix and hear it all together and see what you can pick out in the background now that you know it’s there.
That brings us to the bridge, which begins with a pretty heavy riff.
So let’s explore this next part. First, I just want to listen to Scott Ballew’s drums, because he’s playing great during this part. And there’s more of those radio effects going on, including some nonsense vocals, very low in the background. Let’s hear a bit of that.
And let’s pick it up when the vocals come in.
“Late at night we’re singing tunes
from deep inside our basement rooms,
lurking on our secret frequency
and in the dark red meters glow a message to the freaks”
And now there’s a nice little piano part under that, and from there, it builds back up for the final refrain
[Music]Notice the tambourine here. There’s the sound of a classic tape echo here. Probably an Echoplex, manipulating it by hand, slowing the tape down to get that descending echo. And let’s listen to what the bass is doing here at the end. You can really hear that 8-string in full effect.
Play that back all the way through, with what I assume is a little bit of vocoder at the end.
After the “Rev 9” EP, The Shazam released another full length album called “Tomorrow The World” in 2002. That’s a great album…in fact, that may be my favorite Shazam album.
After that, Mick Wilson left the band and they recruited a new bass player, Mike Vargo, and Jeremy Asbrock finally joined the band as an official full-time member. They released one more album, “Meteor”, in 2009. That album was produced by Mack, a legendary producer who worked with Queen and ELO, just to name a few.
But unfortunately, things just came to an end, as they often do. I wish I understood why some artists catch on and others don’t. In my opinion, The Shazam were one of the best bands to come along in the last 30 years. Seriously, I would stack them up against any band that’s made a record in the last 30 years. They should have sold a million records and played stadiums, but it just didn’t happen.
The good thing, though, is that this music is still out there. You can find these CDs, you can stream all of these songs –and I want you to do it. Go find The Shazam. You will love this music, I promise.
Bassist Mick Wilson more or less retired from the music biz, though he does still play around. His replacement, Mike Vargo, is still playing and he’s actually got a pretty successful career going, including playing Paul McCartney in a McCartney tribute project.
Sadly, drummer Scott Ballew took his own life in April 2019.
I want to thank both Jeremy Asbrock and Hans Rotenberry for helping me with this episode. Hans was especially generous with his time. Jeremy has earned a great reputation as a hired gun guitarist and he’s just launched a new band called Rock City Machine Company. Check them out.
And Hans, he put out an album with Brad Jones in 2010 called “Mountain Jack”. It’s a great record. And as we speak, he’s compiling material for a deluxe reissue of the “Godspeed The Shazam” album. And when that’s available, I’d love to have him on the show. Maybe we can do a track by track or something. That’d be fun.
Anyway, thanks to both Jeremy and Hans for sharing their stories with me, and I thank you for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode. If you’d like to get caught up on all of our previous shows, you’ll find them all on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com, or listen to the show on your favorite podcast app. We’re on Amazon, we’re on Apple, we’re on Google Podcast, we’re on Spotify and Pandora and iHeartRadio… you name it, we’re on there.
Remember to support the artists that you love, like I love The Shazam, by buying their music, and you can support this show by just telling people about it. Won’t cost you a thing, and it really helps spreading the word. I’ll see you soon. Thanks for listening to this episode on The Shazam and “On The Airwaves”.