Remembering radio station 105.5 KNAC

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For some of you out there who are regular readers of my all-too-infrequent blog entries, I have shared with you some of my fond memories as a young metalhead. I have also shared personal stories involving music and its impact on my life. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that this piece is another trip down memory lane. But hopefully as you read on, you will see that it is so much more than that.

 

“If it's too loud, you're too old!”
(KNAC station slogan)

 

Over the last several years, as metal has begun to make somewhat of a comeback on the American music scene (although technically, it never went anywhere), there have been several documentaries or television shows chronicling metal music and life its different subgenres, and the various ways that metalheads express themselves by way of their respective region or culture. Whenever any of these programs would attempt to go back and discuss the history of the metal scene, especially in the Los Angeles area, there was always one glaring omission: there was never any mention of the hard rock radio station KNAC, which to any headbanger who lived in Southern California from the years 1986 to 1995, this was not just a radio station, but it was a way of life. KNAC not only celebrated the heavy metal life but epitomized it.

 

Perhaps to the average person reading this blog, to not mention a mere radio station doesn't seem like an injustice; after all, there are hundreds of radio stations in existence, and hundreds more that once existed. What's the big deal about not mentioning a radio station that played heavy metal during a time when the genre had some level of mainstream popularity? This is what I hope to answer with this article. Because you see, KNAC was much more than a radio station. They had more of an impact on the metal scene than people outside of Southern California truly realize.



 

Just to give an example, how many of you out there reading this has a regular feature on your local rock radio station called "Mandatory Metallica"? Guess what? Mandatory Metallica originated from KNAC. The segment was hosted by a DJ named Poundin' Pat, who would play rare Metallica tracks as well as album cuts. Every weeknight at 9 o'clock, 105.5 was the place to be to get your daily Metallica fix.

In fact, up until the band found massive popularity in the early '90s with the Black Album, KNAC was virtually the only radio station on earth who played their music on a regular basis. If KNAC was not so important to the history of one of the most iconic metal bands, then why, at the height of their popularity, did James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich spend the entire final day of KNAC on the air, answering phones and talking to fans as the station bid their loyal listeners farewell with the Metallica song “Fade to Black”? Metallica recognized how pivotal KNAC had been to their career up to that point. They had walked into the KNAC studios nearly a decade before as unknowns, and were leaving as mega-stars. KNAC played a huge part in that trajectory to success.

It might even be surmised that it was after the end of KNAC that the band’s music changed drastically from hard-rockin’ heavy metal to experimenting with different sounds (say what you want about the Black Album, but it could still stylistically be considered metal!). Some fans could even put up a strong argument that it was because Metallica no longer had that unconditional support that KNAC had given, that they were forced to reassess their musical direction and shift to a that would guarantee them continued airplay on other rock radio stations. Considering that the Load album was released a little more than a year after the station went off the air, I am one of those who tend to agree with this theory. Up until that point, Metallica was never played on stations like KROQ, which was L.A.'s alternative/new wave radio station; known more for playing bands like Duran Duran or The Cure than Metallica. Yet after Load, Metallica became a regular staple on KROQ. To many die-hard KNAC hard-rockers, this was the final nail in the coffin and felt almost like a betrayal, since the rivalry between KNAC fans and KROQ fans was almost legendary during that time.

 

KNAC DJ`s Long Paul & Nasty Neal with Metallica`s Lars Ulrich on KNAC`s last day on the air.



At any rate, I can almost bet you money that Metallica does not go to every radio station that plays their music and spends the day with them as they go off the air and switch to another musical platform. But they did for KNAC. Why? I suppose the easiest answer would be, “if you weren't there, you wouldn't understand”; but the point of this article is to shed some light on the subject and hopefully to make people understand why this radio station was so special and why, 20 years after it signed off the air, it still resonates with people.

I have talked to numerous Pure Rockers from the Southland who were there during the KNAC years; both online and in person, but I suppose if I'm going to explain the importance of this little radio station from Long Beach, I should begin with my own personal experiences. Perhaps as I go on to share memories from others, and one can see how many shared recollections we all have, it will become clearer as to why KNAC was more than just a radio station, and why it seems very unfair that KNAC never gets a proper mention in all of these metal-related features.

While putting this tribute together, I also attempted to get in touch with some of the station's DJs for research purposes, and perhaps to contribute to this piece if they felt so inclined. Although I only heard back from one of them, his take on the matter was that the story of KNAC is best told by the fans, through their eyes. To paraphrase his reasons for this, the stories from the on-air personalities have been told and re-told numerous times, but the fans each have a viewpoint that is uniquely their own, and deserves the chance to be told. The percentage of listeners is considerably greater than that of the DJs, so there is an abundance of KNAC-related tales just waiting to be heard. Considering that this is written by a fan as a way to pay homage to the station that played the soundtrack of my life, this can only be the most fitting perspective when taking on such an assignment. Obviously, out of respect to the DJ who contacted me, I will not mention him by name, and respect his wish that this tribute remains by the fans, for the fans.

To most anyone who lived through the Hollywood metal scene in the '80s or experienced it firsthand, it is almost impossible not to mention KNAC among those memories. For many, the scene and the station go hand in hand, and one could not have properly existed without the other. This is my attempt to document somewhere that KNAC was an integral part of the metal scene in Southern California during the heyday of the Sunset Strip years. Someone needs to put it down for posterity, and since no one else appears to be doing it, I guess that someone must be me!

During my formative years as a metalhead, if metal was my religion, then KNAC was my church. In the pre-internet days, getting the latest news about your favorite bands or hearing about new talent was limited to magazines like Rip, Circus, or Metal Edge; or watching music programs such as Headbanger’s Ball on MTV (another entity that was essential in shaping my metal world). FM radio was also another outlet for such information, but normally radio was pretty limited in what bands you could hear the latest about. Few radio stations were purely dedicated just to metal music, so the rock stations normally focused on the bands who were more popular or who had something new to offer right then and there. Information was not readily available in an instant like it is today; where you can go online and keep up-to-date on any band from any corner of the world, regardless of popularity. Back when radio and MTV were the primary sources of music-related news, if you were a fan of some obscure band from overseas, good luck finding out what they were up to unless you joined their fan club (which was also another option before the days of the internet; but it was costly, and usually you could only afford to join one fan club at best)! Even the metal magazines did not always keep tabs on the different scenes within the scene; so certainly radio stations were not geared to cater to such particular tastes. News about your favorite artists could take weeks or months to find out; which seems almost insane in this day and age of instant information, where a fan can literally watch a band’s album-making process unfold from beginning to end.

As far as the rock stations in Los Angeles went; your choices were either rock, alternative rock, lite-rock, or KNAC’s more “G-rated” rival station, Pirate Radio. Although it called itself a metal station, the notable difference between Pirate Radio and KNAC was that Pirate Radio was more like its corporate counterparts in Sure, they played metal music, but most of it was whatever was currently mainstream, or the most “inoffensive” of the metal bands on the scene at the time (i.e., most of the watered-down hair-metal bands that became popular during the late '80s and early '90s right before grunge completely took over; when it was clear that the glam rock phenomenon had overstayed its welcome and therefore garnering its fair share of cookie-cutter copycats). You weren’t going to hear the heavier genres (like death metal, for example), except maybe late at night on Saturdays, if at all; because even for a metal station, some genres were just too dangerous for Pirate Radio! Nor were you going to hear too much about what was going on in the local music scene; Pirate Radio wasn’t going to showcase up-and-coming local bands that were making waves and could possibly become the next MTV superstars. Those bands could get airplay over at Pirate Radio after they already sold a million records!

But KNAC was an exception; they were all about waving the metal flag no matter where its stake was planted, and focused on the lesser-known bands as much as they did on the big names, regardless of genre. If a band played metal, KNAC played their music or talked about them on the air no matter what time of the day it was. KNAC walked the walk and talked the talk; they embodied the true metal spirit in that they operated much more like an underground radio station in spite of being right there on the FM dial. The fact that they suffered from a weak signal only strengthened their notoriety as an underground sensation. In short, if you could imagine the perfect metal radio station, KNAC was it. I would even go so far to say that in many respects it surpassed what a perfect metal radio station might be in most of our dreams! Yet it was not a thing of fantasy; it was very real, and it was part of the lives of many headbangers for nearly a decade. This on-air utopia may better explain why the station was so beloved by listeners and why metalheads from the area still speak of it with reverence to this day.

No metal subgenre was exempt from being played on the station: from thrash metal to glam metal to progressive metal to stoner metal to metal genres that didn't even have a proper name yet: if it rocked, KNAC played it. I cannot tell you how many different bands I first learned about through KNAC. Perhaps it was through KNAC that I first became aware that there were different subgenres within metal and that not all metal bands rocked the same way. It was probably also because of KNAC that I was able to appreciate all different kinds of metal and did not subscribe to the elitist attitude that only certain types of metal constituted as "true metal". The station's motto was "Pure Rock", so whether it was hard rock, rock, heavy metal, or even punk rock; as long as it had loud guitars and pounding drums, it had a home at KNAC. Even though it prided itself on being a metal station, all rock was welcome. To hear bands like Exodus, Rush, Soundgarden, and Bad Religion all in the same hour-long block of music was not uncommon at KNAC. Among a community that is often ostracized by the mainstream, 105.5 was the place where everyone was welcome. There was no snobbery about what could or couldn't be played on the airwaves. Upstart local bands had just as much airtime as the biggest names of the day.

The KNAC listener base was just as multi-faceted as the musical the station played. From the big-haired, spandex-wearing rockers that frequented the Sunset Strip during the hair-metal heyday, to denim-and-leather NWOBHM headbangers and teenagers dressed all in black; your typical KNAC listener did not fall into a stereotypical category. For as many people who outwardly looked like rockers that listened to the station, there were just as many "pillars of the community" (i.e., doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) that had their car radios tuned in to 105.5 at the end of the work day. Considering that the station existed during the majority of my school years, I remember always being a little surprised whenever a teacher would tune in to KNAC during those days when we were allowed to listen to music in the or if a respectable adult was seen wearing a "Pure Rock" t-shirt. Early on, I learned what it meant to be part of the secret metalhead alliance, and to recognize the signs whenever we met one of our own.

Even the radio station staff exemplified this unique diversity: whether it was the on-air personalities like the late Tawn Mastrey, Long Paul, or morning show host Thrasher (just to name a few); phone operators with metal-based nicknames; or listeners that were just as recognizable as the DJs (such as frequent caller Iguana Bob); the people that supported the music were a huge component of what made KNAC so much more than just another radio station. These were people you felt like you knew, because they shared the same love of metal that you did. They were people who loved the same bands with the same enthusiasm; they went to the same concerts, they bought the same albums, they rocked out to the same songs. When you called in to the station to talk to any of these people, you felt like you were talking to a friend. KNAC was like a home for headbangers, and every person down from the van drivers all the way up to the DJs all felt like your long-lost metal family.

like it was yesterday. i can't remember what bands they had on the last few hours, just remember a few f-bombs getting dropped. 

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http://youtu.be/Q-LNFCTMs24

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Even so, I could only take part in so much of the KNAC experience, since the station existed during the years in my life when I was too young to go to concerts, or to the clubs where KNAC-related gatherings took place. The station went off the air when I was still in high school, so I never got to go to a KNAC Night at the Red Onion or at Gecko’s. I never had the experience of looking for the KNAC van at a metal gig so I could get a sticker or a t-shirt. I never got to see some of my favorite local bands at Live Bait or Club 369. But KNAC was my companion through all those lonely, boring Saturday nights in my teenage years when all the older metalheads were off having fun doing the things that I couldn’t do yet. Somehow I did not feel left out because of it, because there was a DJ on the air who wasn’t going to be there either, because someone had to spin the Pure Rock tunes so the rest of us still had something to headbang to! So no matter what else was going on in that big, wide world of metal that I couldn’t be a part of, I still wasn’t alone.

So what was it like for the adult Pure Rockers out there, who could take advantage of all the perks that the night life had to offer? Denise Dardarian mentions the great contests and prizes that listeners could win: “There were a few times I won tickets and passes for concerts from them, and it was a blast. The Pure Rock Patrol would be out at the clubs where they would have KNAC Nights, passing out the KNAC swag.”

Jenny Brooks shares her memory of a familiar sight at all metal concerts: “Always looked for the KNAC van at every concert–big black van with white letters–to get our stickers.”

My friend and fellow Queensrÿche fan Jennifer Ott talks about one of her KNAC-related memories at one of the Rÿche shows she attended, which also paints an image of how the Pure Rock headbangers made an impact wherever they went, in whatever setting: “I remember going to [the] Queensrÿche Operation: Livecrime/Empire [tour] concert in Long Beach […] across the way, The Nutcracker ballet show was also going on and seeing the KNAC van amidst the many thousands of cars with the stickers and the contrast to all the Mercedes and limos headed to the ballet.”

crowbar - 

Just to give an example, how many of you out there reading this has a regular feature on your local rock radio station called "Mandatory Metallica"? Guess what? Mandatory Metallica originated from KNAC. The segment was hosted by a DJ named Poundin' Pat, who would play rare Metallica tracks as well as album cuts. Every weeknight at 9 o'clock, 105.5 was the place to be to get your daily Metallica fix.

In fact, up until the band found massive popularity in the early '90s with the Black Album, KNAC was virtually the only radio station on earth who played their music on a regular basis. If KNAC was not so important to the history of one of the most iconic metal bands, then why, at the height of their popularity, did James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich spend the entire final day of KNAC on the air, answering phones and talking to fans as the station bid their loyal listeners farewell with the Metallica song “Fade to Black”? Metallica recognized how pivotal KNAC had been to their career up to that point. They had walked into the KNAC studios nearly a decade before as unknowns, and were leaving as mega-stars. KNAC played a huge part in that trajectory to success.

It might even be surmised that it was after the end of KNAC that the band’s music changed drastically from hard-rockin’ heavy metal to experimenting with different sounds (say what you want about the Black Album, but it could still stylistically be considered metal!). Some fans could even put up a strong argument that it was because Metallica no longer had that unconditional support that KNAC had given, that they were forced to reassess their musical direction and shift to a that would guarantee them continued airplay on other rock radio stations. Considering that the Load album was released a little more than a year after the station went off the air, I am one of those who tend to agree with this theory. Up until that point, Metallica was never played on stations like KROQ, which was L.A.'s alternative/new wave radio station; known more for playing bands like Duran Duran or The Cure than Metallica. Yet after Load, Metallica became a regular staple on KROQ. To many die-hard KNAC hard-rockers, this was the final nail in the coffin and felt almost like a betrayal, since the rivalry between KNAC fans and KROQ fans was almost legendary during that time.

 

i agree with this assessment of metallica

The KNAC van was a welcome sight for all metalheads,even Iron Maiden`s mascot Eddie 

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"“No matter where we went…we saw KNAC stickers South America, all kinds of places…they associated that with metal; that was the thing. They had them on cars; they were showing that, hey, this is America…we’re in the middle of nowhere, and they had something like that to show us. It was very cool.”

James Hetfield

For all this discussion about the KNAC listeners and the metal fans who made this station what it was; obviously it had to have more of an impact beyond the realm of the station's on-air frequency in order for it to stand out and to be remembered even all these years later. KNAC wasn't just a local tour de force; it reached all the way to the bands who made this music too. They recognized what a special thing KNAC was, and understood that it was a gathering place where they could interact with their audience. Metal musicians listened to KNAC as much as the fans did. Before long, KNAC shirts and stickers were spotted in music videos not just among the fans in the crowd, but rockers were sporting KNAC gear onstage too. The fact that Ozzy Osbourne admitted that "KNAC were the only radio call letters he remembered" to metalhead Jordan West when he had a chance to meet The Prince of Darkness, this alone speaks volumes about the importance of KNAC to the metal community. Rock stars are constantly doing press and promotion for countless radio stations around the world, so for someone of Ozzy's status to remember those particular call letters above any other only further emphasizes just how unique the station was, and how much it meant to listeners and musicians alike.

Dokken drummer Mick Brown sports a KNAC shirt during the bands "Walk Away" video

Members from Pantera and Annihilator.

Slash from Guns & Roses.

It really was like an exclusive club for metalheads, and everyone around the world was welcome to join. You didn't have to be from Southern California to be a part of the KNAC family. Returning to the previous analogy, KNAC was like a congregation of headbangers, all gathering together to spread the metal gospel. It was where I learned how tightly-knit the metal community is; and how, more than any other genre of music, we metal fans truly see one another as part of an extended family. The fact that the bands we listened to were also part of this communal vibe only made the bond that much stronger, and that much more meaningful.

KNAC was responsible for launching not only the career of Metallica, but for many other L.A.-based bands in the late '80s and early '90s. The guys from Guns 'n' Roses offer this memory of KNAC from the early days of their career: “On the way home, we heard something from Live Like a Suicide—I think it was “Move to the City”—in the van on the way back, and it was a great feeling, because it was the first time we had ever heard ourselves on the radio.” Countless bands experienced that same feeling whenever they tuned into 105.5 and heard their music on the radio for the first time; because, as pointed out earlier in this article, KNAC had no boundaries as to what kind of music they played. Their attitude was that today's newcomers could very well be tomorrow's superstars, so metal bands across the board were showcased.

Dimebag Darrell & Vinnie Paul from Pantera visit the KNAC studios

K N A C !

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Whether it was small local gigs at Gazzari's, or huge metal events like Monsters of Rock, if it was a metal gig in Southern California, KNAC was at the forefront. In fact, when Monsters of Rock in 1988 turned into an all-out riot, KNAC chronicled the entire thing on the air, describing it as "an absolute solid mass of people covering the entire Coliseum floor to about the 50-yard line from the stage..." KNAC listener Robert Watts remembers that day clearly too: "The best part of the whole day was when Metallica came on. The place went fucking ballistic! There were eight-foot high chain link fences between the floor and the risers. Those fences came down in seconds as Metallicans rushed the floor. Security had no fucking clue what they were up against. I remember my six-foot friend literally throwing his four-foot-six girlfriend over the fence before it came down."

L.A. was definitely the place to be during the '80s, and for most of those glory days of the Sunset Strip, KNAC was part of it. To be a fan back when bands like Megadeth, Armored Saint, and Testament were first starting out, and to watch those bands go from playing small clubs to huge arenas almost overnight...it must have been quite an awesome thing.

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In fact, it was because of metal’s growing popularity that KNAC’s Pure Rock format came to be in the first place. As all things have an ending, they also have a beginning, and Pure Rock’s roots can be traced back to 4 consecutive sold-out Iron Maiden shows at the Long Beach Arena. It was clear to the mainstream world that metal was more than just an underground fad; that something big was happening far beyond their control. Nothing could stop the juggernaut that metal had become.

Before that, KNAC existed on the radio dial as far back as the early '70s, as a free-form radio station, and then in the early '80s as the new-wave/alternative station Rock & Rhythm. But then in early January of 1986, the changing of the guard was heralded by the bagpipes of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll)”, and the era of Pure Rock officially began its 9-year tenure.

From the beginning, KNAC defied the odds: even when metal music was experiencing mainstream popularity, there's no denying that metal has never been greatly respected by the majority. Outsiders deemed metalheads as slow-witted slackers who shook out their brains from all the headbanging they did. KNAC was proving otherwise with their talk-show program Talk Back, which aired on Sunday mornings and delved into the controversial topics of the day, from politics to the Gulf War to censorship; especially in the wake of the Judas Priest trial and accusations of Ozzy Osbourne corrupting the youth. Bands and fans alike would articulate their viewpoints on these subjects and open up discussion about many different hot-button issues of the day; showing that for all their wild onstage personas, most of these metal musicians were quite intelligent and aware of what went on in the world, and that their audience was not only just as savvy about these matters, but had their own strong opinions about them.

After all, metal has never been about following the leader or going along with the current; and as public opinion began to take an unfavorable opinion towards metal music, KNAC and its fans flashed their metal horns with even greater flair, and wore their metal badges with pride. It really is a testament to KNAC’s bond with its fans that it wasn’t pulled off the air during those times of scare tactics against the music they loved. Metal fans really can be likened to an army when they are roused, and KNAC’s troops were at the front lines, ready to go to battle against anyone who would compromise their freedom to rock.

And fans rocked anywhere: from the golden shores of the Southern California coast, to the stifling heat of the Valley, KNAC became part of the local consciousness. As Bradley Hindman put it more succinctly: "I never turned the receiver off in my apartment. It was always set to KNAC." For the next 9 years, it was a never-ending ride of decadent good times; as Eric Kuder put it: "It was the best nine years of metal, sex and parties!"