How many times has a radio experiment turned into a hit song? "Waves On The West Coast" was one such example. I recorded a new acoustic version of the song on Nov 6. 2009, to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the song being a summer of 1989 hit in Sacramento.
"Waves On The West Coast" was my first studio recording ever in 1989. I did the late night show (10p-2a) on KWOD at the time. This was before KWOD was alternative, when it played just the hits and a few test songs. Anyone who listened regularly to KWOD that summer heard the song, because once it hit the airwaves the requests began pouring in, keeping it on the air a lot longer than I expected. The song became an actual hit in Sacramento that summer. All it was supposed to be was a surprise on the feature "Like It Or Spike It." Then it started getting tested around the country on other stations, so I pressed five hundred 45 rpm records and gave most to them away to friends and radio stations.
To separate my on-air persona from my musical endeavors, the artist name was billed as Tangent Featuring A.C. and Harrison Price. "Harry" produced the record at the studio where he worked in Sacramento called The Lasting Impression. The flipside was an instrumental of the same song with Harry's experimental effects that was entitled "Psychedelic Waves."
I wrote the song in the Fall of 1988 after I visited Hawaii as group leader for radio contest winners. I was inspired by the beaches of Waikiki and how everyone was listening to portable radios. For me, it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. I've always loved the ocean and the feeling it brings.
The Beach Boys were making a comeback at that time and had a number one hit called "Kokomo" so surf music was on my mind. In October 1988 I began writing "Waves on the West Coast" on acoustic guitar. I was into strong, vivid melodic lyrics but the music that was taking over sounded like dance music that just happened to have lyrics. So as an experiment, I began looking for producers that could create an electronic dance production of the surf-flavored song. I decided to make the song about the west coast since it was only intended to be played on KWOD in Sacramento, which is only a few hours off the coast. My radio friend Rick Neal introduced me to Harrison Price, whose song "Spiritual Zoo" had radio airplay and club play in town.
The recording project began in the Spring of 1989 with me giving Harry a home-recorded cassette tape I did of "Waves On The West Coast." It was basically an acoustic guitar and vocal demo. My idea was to create a modern recording of a sixties-inspired song about the beach. I was definitely a Beach Boys fan, but I could never sound like them. Vocally I simply did not have that kind of range. I wanted it to sound unique anyway. Another reason for making the record was that there simply were not a lot of great upbeat records at that time as pop radio was drifting toward too much sleepy balladeering. I believed that was one of the reasons Top 40 radio across the country was spiralling downward in the ratings at the time. So I wanted to do something upbeat and modern yet nostalgic with a feel-good summer theme.
The finished product was a 16-track recording in which I sung lead vocals, Harry played guitar and all the electronic instruments while a singer named Stephanie Lords did background vocal harmonies with Harry and me. I picked Harry to produce the record on the recommendation of Rick Neal, who I helped get a job at KWOD. Harry was fairly well-known in the local scene as a techno musician. I was heavily into the techno/pop sound of groups like Love & Rockets and Information Society at the time. In fact, Harry patterned the electronic drum track of "Waves" after the Information Society hit "Walking Away."
The project took several sessions to record even though by professional standards it was a very simple tune. The reason for the extensive work had a lot to do with the fact that I was a novice vocalist who was very alien to the studio environment, plus I had a hard time conveying to Harry how I wanted the music to sound. I simply did not have the musical vocabulary to communicate what I was hearing in my head. Somehow, though, with Harry being the accomplished keyboardist that he was, we were able to put it all together. But due to technological limitations of the studio, the recording had to be mixed to one inch tape and then pre-mastered on a VHS cassette. The result was a rather thin sound compared to most major label releases.
One of the first persons to hear the finished recording was an A&R representative named Marc Nathan, who worked at Atlantic Records. Because I dealt with industry people at KWOD I was able to get him to come down to the studio and check out the recording. He seemed positive about it but restrained at the same time, just as most people in his position act. Marc was a great contact. At the time one of his signings was Kon Kan, who had a hit called "I Beg Your Pardon." In the nineties Marc went on to sign 3 Doors Down for Universal.
I felt the finished product could be a hit, but then again, I was very biased. I was actually blown away how the record sounded, considering my lack of studio experience. I always felt that if a song was well-written, it would be hard to mess up the performance and I felt very strongly that it was a well-written song. The lyrics went as follows:
Waves On The West Coast|
words and music by Alex Cosper
Waves on the West Coast
sunshine on the beach
classrooms look so empty
everyone enjoys the heat in the sun
Motor down the highway
cruisin' with my shades
roll along the shoreline
lookin' for a place to stay
Waves on the West Coast
layin' in the sand
wait all year for summer
just to get a tan
Waves on the West Coast
radios are blasting
all the guys just like to stare at the girls
June through September
beach parties every night
that's why I rent a condo
I need adventure in my life to survive
(repeat chorus several times)
The first time it hit the airwaves on KWOD was on a feature we did called "Like It Or Spike It" on June 2. The jock was Pat Garrett ("The Nighthawk"), who was a very wild and crazy guy. He did 6p-10p before my show. At 7 o'clock he announced he had a mystery singer to play for the feature and he asked listeners to guess who it was. After he played the song the first caller, a regular listener named Kari, guessed it was me right off the bat. I had a very familiar and unique voice on the station. Everyone at the time knew me by my initials "A.C.," which was usually what I called myself on the air, although occasionally I gave my full name. Kari gave it a thumbs up then Pat took several other live comments on the air and it was overwhelmingly positive. After a half hour of tallying the votes, Pat announced that the overall verdict was "Like It!"
From there we left the song in the studio. Even though the music was programmed and the jocks pretty much had to follow a strict playlist (which was the industry standard), other jocks said they liked it and wanted to play it. Somehow it got played around the clock even though it wasn't on the list. It was the kind of record you could sneak in without getting in trouble with the programming staff, which included me. Next thing you know the song started getting lots of requests and it actually felt like it could be a real hit record.
Three days after the song's radio debut I was at a movie theater with fellow jock Dean Stevens introducing one of our premieres for our contest winners. Dean introduced me to the crowd as the singer of "Waves On The West Coast." Based on the cheers, either the crowd was polite, they just liked my show or they knew the song. It had been played here and there on the air but usually it took several weeks for a new record to become widely familiar. By June 6 it was the most requested song of the day, but I told Pat Garrett not to include it in the "Hot 8 at 8" countdown because I didn't want people to think we were hyping one of our own staff member's records.
I started sending copies of the song on cassette to friends in the industry. I received instant positive response from my old friend Mr. Ed Lambert, who was my original radio mentor at KWOD throughout the '80s. He was now working at a station in Minneapolis. Even Joel Denver, who was the CHR Editor of Radio & Records at the time called me to say he liked the record. On June 9 the music industry trade magazine Hitmakers mentioned the song in a small blurb, but only because I had regular conversations with the magazine about new music.
The following week I had Harry send the recording to a record manufacturer to press 500 copies of 45 rpm vinyl singles. Even though the CD had taken over by then and 45s were being phased out of the cultural landscape, I had always been a collector of 45s and just wanted to see it on vinyl. But on June 26 my dream of having a hit went sour when KWOD's General Manager Ed Stolz told me to discontinue playing the record, simply because he didn't feel it was a record we needed to play, although he said he liked the song. So for awhile the song went away and I accepted the idea that it wasn't going to be a hit.
Then on July 13 boxes of the record arrived from the manufacturer. I had already gotten the okay from Tower Records at various locations to put it on sale in their stores, and the record officially went on sale the next day. I only put about 50 copies total at stores and saved the rest to give to friends and industry people. When Ed saw the physical copy of the record he seemed impressed and gave me the go ahead to play it occassionally on the air.
One of the first persons I sent a copy to was one of my competitors at rival station FM 102. Evening personality Mark Allen had told me he liked the song so I sent him a copy. To my shocking surprise, however, a few days later I was told by Rick Neal that Allen played it on FM 102 and "blew it up" as a joke. I actually thought that was very funny. I completely understood because KWOD and FM 102 were always slamming each other on the air at the time. This was the same Mark Allen who went on to be KMAX-TV host of "Good Day Sacramento."
On July 24 the weekly request report for KWOD showed that "Waves On The West Coast" ranked number 3 for the week. The next day afternoon jock Dr. Dave Michaels had me come into the studio on his show to announce that he sent the record to his radio friends in Rochester, NY and the song scored 80% positive on the station's on-air music test with listeners. The next day the song was played on a station in Ithica, NY on a feature called "Battle of the Bands." Surprisingly, "Waves" beat "Heaven" by Warrant, which went on to become a top three pop record nationally (before facing a copyright lawsuit). The following week "Waves" showed up on KWOD's most requested songs at number 6.
Then more exciting news came the following week. First Pamela Jouan at Hitmakers called to tell me that the song was now being played on Sly 96 in San Luis Obispo, CA. Wow, I thought, it was actually being heard on the coast. It was always my dream to hear that song on the radio as I was driving on Pacific Coast Highway 1 with a beautiful view of the ocean. Then the next day the song showed up at number 5 in requests for the week on KWOD. The following week it jumped back up to number 3. It stayed in the top ten for two more weeks. Then on September 1 legendary alternative station WHFS in Washington DC gave the flipside "Psychedelic Waves" a spin. I was blown away that the East Coast would even consider spinning a record about the West Coast. Then again, they were the only ones to play the instrumental version.
I was very amazed at the reaction even though the record had a raw sound, making it sonically thinner than most records on the air. Local recording engineer Martin Ashley (aka Wonder Rabbit) informed me that one inch tape was not the industry standard, it was two inch tape at the time. Nevertheless, no one seemed to complain. Everywhere I went in public I'd meet new listeners who commented on the song. One fan named Irene even gave me a T-shirt she had made up for me that said "Waves On The West Coast" on the back. Another local recording engineer, Sean Haddock, volunteered to remix the song to his liking. He said "it needs to be wetter with more reverb." I let him remix it and both versions ended up on the air.
On September 16 KWOD played another tune I wrote called "Survival" featuring background vocals from my high school friend Naja Davis, who went on to beccome a Raiderette for the Oakland Raiders. We recorded it at Moon Recording Studio with David Houston as producer. He had worked with Club Nouveau, who had the #1 hit "Lean On Me." But by that point I agreed with KWOD owner Ed Stolz to back off playing my own songs on the air. After all, I was the Music Director and I was the guy who made up the playlist and the music logs that the station programmed throughout the day.
A few months after my song "fell out of rotation" new management came in and cleaned house. I was out of KWOD for about a year and a half but the same boss who fired me rehired me in 1991 and gave my radio career a new life. This time I was promoted to Program Director as the station had just shifted toward modern rock. In June 1992, on the advice of local musician David Conley, I established a show for the local music scene called "The Sound of Sacramento" (later renamed "Sounds of Sacramento"). I wanted other local artists to feel the excitement I felt from having a local hit. I co-hosted the show with Morris B, who went on to become a big San Francisco radio star as Morris Knight. Other personalities eventually hosted the show including David Conley.
As the years went on, I learned more and more about the music industry and how it works. It was no wonder that even though "Waves On The West Coast" was a genuine local hit in Sacramento, it was not a national hit for lots of reasons. A main reason was there was no pile of cash to make anything happen. I had no manager, label or money to promote it within the context of the real game that is played, which involved spending at least a quarter million dollars at that time. Normally, the management or investors would pay a third party to create a promotion fund for the artist and then deals would happen. That's kind of how it worked until the music biz started falling apart financially in the 2000s.
It made me realize that no matter how good a song is or how much the audience likes it, there was still a barrier to cross if you really wanted to make music for the radio. Some radio DJs have pulled off turning a radio career into a music career. Of course, part of how they do it is the radio industry gives them access to the music industry, since both industries deal with each other. I met a lot of great people in the music industry but I was so busy with radio I didn't have enough time or resources to focus on making high quality performance recordings - but it was still what I always wanted to do. With the new century, there are many more ways to get your song heard, so I'm glad to see how the new digital music world is developing. It used to be radio was the gatekeeper of new music, but now the internet has opened the floodgates for new horizons.
At one point the lyrics say "radios are blasting" which to me, was what I remember about the beaches of Hawaii when I visited in September 1988. Everyone had radios on the beach and I always associated the beach with radios. My fantasy was to work at a radio station on the coast and play surf music mixed with ocean sound effects and every kind of rock and roll. Somewhere along the line I fell in love with the ocean, which somehow speaks to me in ways beyond words. Waves are what make up both the ocean and radio. Radio communicates industry voices and the ocean communicates the Earth's spirit. Radio was still a big part of people's lives in 1989 and it was looked upon as a community resource. It was allowed to lead pop culture and entertain audiences in many creative ways.
The exciting listener response to "Waves on the West Coast" was what made me start thinking more about the Sacramento local music scene. I wanted to share the thrill with other fellow musicians. I would later create Sacramento's first internet radio station called SacLive, which played all local music 24 hours a day and was promoted by the Sacramento Bee.
I'm always thrilled when someone remembers the song and describes what it meant to them then or now. I realize it was more of a novelty but somehow it became a musical treasure to some people. The song resurfaced in the nineties when my band the Beat Villains incorporated it into our live shows and on a cassette release in 1992. Because I've run into people from time to time since then who remind me of the song, I decided to record a new version of the song in 2005, which got regular airplay on a San Francisco radio station called KYOU Radio. I've done additional versions since, including an acoustic video (see below) called "Surf n' Spy Medley," which includes the song back to back with a song I wrote in 2012 called "Spies Around the World." With new versions popping up all the time, the song continues to live on in the 21st century.
© Tangent Sunset