“W.O.L.D.” — Harry Chapin

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Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

I love a song that tells a complete story in three minutes…well more like five minutes in this case, but still…

In an inspired move, Harry Chapin wrote the central character of his story as a radio DJ travelling from town to town and station to station trying to find both himself and a career…without ever quite finding either…

So naturally radio DJs, all of whom could identify with the experiences Harry Chapin sung about, clamoured to play it. Although only a minor hit in the UK, the radio airplay over here for “W.O.L.D.” far out-paced its chart performance.

Back in 1974, when “W.O.L.D.” came out, radio was the place to be.

In the UK at least, you could count the number of TV channels on one hand…without even needing your thumb or all the fingers.

Just before “W.O.L.D.” was released, commercial radio arrived in the UK for the first time. Before that, there was only the BBC and “pirate” radio stations…so called because they were commercial radio stations which broadcast without a licence from boats situated outside UK territorial waters and therefore out of the reach of the UK government which wanted to shut them down.

Pirate radio was shut down in the end. The Sound Broadcasting Act opened the door to commercial radio in 1972 and in 1973 the UK’s first commercial radio station, talk radio station LBC, launched to serve the London area.

Music-led Capital Radio in London and Radio Clyde in Glasgow quickly followed. Then exponential growth kicked in. Between BBC local radio and the commercial stations, radio quickly became the place to be.

Which was handy for Harry Chapin because that meant there were plenty more DJs to empathise with his story of a down-on-his-luck radio DJ and play “W.O.L.D.” on their own shows.

Nowadays we might call this influencer marketing, but this sort of tactic has been effective long before Instagram was ever thought of.

Before computer-driven radio playlists took over, in the “wild west” of UK radio in the 1970s and early 80s, DJs had more flexibility about what to play than they do now. Slightly off-beat records like “W.O.L.D.” would quite often emerge from the tinny speakers of my transistor radio, especially out of peak listening hours when DJs could get away with playing some of their personal choices instead of the station-mandated Top 40 playlist.

I was, and still am, a big fan of radio so was intrigued by some of the themes Harry Chapin referenced in “W.O.L.D.” as they weren’t necessarily features of UK radio at the time.

For example we didn’t have the AM/FM split in the UK at the time. Everything was AM…or Medium Wave as we called it over here. And, London-based LBC apart, we didn’t have US-style talk radio.

Even the reference to the four letter station ID used by American radio stations seemed impossibly exotic back in the days when I was so excited by the possibilities of radio.

Radio for me in the 1970s was what I imagine the internet was like for teenagers in the late 1990s…the field was wide open…your possibilities were only limited by your imagination…and there were very few people around who could say “no” to you…

“W.O.L.D.” tells the story of a well-travelled DJ who drifted from radio station to radio station across the US.

He moves between AM and FM, between music radio and talk radio and between towns and cities up and down the country before drifting back to his un-named home town to work on what you’d imagine was an “oldies” music station from the station ID.

He’s been everywhere, without finding the happiness he spent years searching for. So he calls his ex-wife and asks her to take him back. Harry Chapin reports just the DJ’s side of the conversation…we’re left to imagine what his ex-wife might have said…

Sadly he’s left it too late…

The way Harry Chapin delivers that final line is a masterpiece. We are left in no doubt that the DJ is anything but happy, but doing his best to put a brave face on things.

“W.O.L.D.” isn’t just for radio nerds like me. It’s full of wonderful, evocative lyrics…

You don’t need to be a travelling radio DJ to identify with that section of the lyrics. Many of us travel to escape our troubles. I know I did…and in some ways, still do.

But I realised much later in life that if you don’t address your troubles, they’ll hop into your suitcase and come right along with you. Sure the excitement of being somewhere new and doing something different might mask them for a month or two, but the same old themes you’ve travelled thousands of miles to get away from will surprise you one morning by waking up when you do.

“W.O.L.D.” also contains a classic line which should be quoted more often than it is in the encyclopedia of inspired song lyrics…

I think we all have days like that…

It’s been nearly 40 years since Harry Chapin passed away, killed in a road accident on his way to perform in a concert.

Since then, computers have taken over radio programming and DJs have less influence than they used to.

In the UK, instead of independently-minded local radio stations we have big national networks like Capital which run algorithmically-driven programming from an office in London somewhere and pump the same shows out through their network of (only nominally) local radio stations which own the licence to broadcast in their local area.

The days of UK radio DJs being like the cowboys of the broadcasting world, free to roam the range and graze their cattle where they may, are well and truly over.

From my point of view, that’s not a good thing.

Computers can tell you what is already popular. What they can’t tell you is who the new breakthrough act might be, or take big risks like when Kenny Everett played “Bohemian Rhapsody” several times an hour on Capital Radio in London until a song he believed in broke through to became the timeless hit we know it as today.

The world loses a little of its humanity every time we let computers make decisions which were previously judgements made by flesh and blood human beings.

Not that flesh and blood people are always right. As you’ll discover, there are many elements in Harry Chapin’s story of a wandering disc jockey that don’t show him or his profession in a very flattering light.

But as a narrative of a particular time and place, working as a DJ in the early 1970s, there are few more powerful songs than “W.O.L.D.”.

And, in fact, fewer better stories of someone trying to escape his troubles but never quite leaving them behind, no matter how far he travelled or how hard he tried.

Listening to “W.O.L.D.”, I’m transported back to the mid-1970s and my memories of this song which so often squeezed its way out of my transistor radio’s tinny speakers in the wee small hours. Even today, I remember all the words and know every nuance of the lyrics and music.

I’ve travelled a long way since then, but I’ve never left “W.O.L.D.” behind…

https://open.spotify.com/track/54dT74d5zcfxvvkpu7uBr5

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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