How America’s greatest secular celebration came to be.
by Kevin Depew
In 1985, nearly three thousand signatures were collected for a petition to Congress to formally designate October as “Rocktober” on all classic rock-format radio stations in the United States and Guam. On November 6, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, into law. In addition to requiring employers to attest to their employees’ immigration status and making it illegal to knowingly hire illegal immigrants, the bill included in section 45, ii 99–603, paragraph 19, an unrelated rider requiring all classic rock-format radio stations to observe Rocktober by using the official Rocktober voiceover when leading into a music segment, or “block,” or face fines of up to $5,000 a day.
What follows is an oral history of Rocktober as told from the perspectives of those who were instrumental in its creation.
I. “For me, everything became about the block.”
Alex Tarpley, former program manager, WMNX, Minneapolis, MN, lead petitioner for Rocktober: It was the Wild West, man. We were out of our minds. WMNX was total madness. I had guys getting the Led out at 8 in the morning. I was first on that, by the way. This was the morning drive time and we’re getting the Led out. Unreal.
Bob Donaldson, DJ, “Dodgy Bob”, WMNX, KSQY, San Diego: My very first night, late shift, and I’m going on right after “King Biscuit Flower Hour.” I’m in the booth trying to impress the assistant programming chick, imitating Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers with the English accent and everything when Tarpley comes by. He hears it and goes apeshit. “You got to do the accent on air! Do it on air! Dodgy Bob. That’s your new name. You’re Dodgy Bob from England.” And so I became Dodgy Bob from England. Tarpley was a genius.
Tarpley: We’re getting the Led out in the morning rush. We’re doing Metal Monday, Double Shot Tuesday to take you into Hump Day, Thursday’s just normal and Friday we had Dodgy Bob kicking off Block Party Weekends.
Mike Evers, DJ, “Cruiser”, WKCC, Kansas City: Everybody knew MNX. Hell, we wanted to be MNX. They had that English cat, Dodgy Bob with Block Party Weekend. They were doing double shots of Clapton and The Doors on Tuesday. Freaking Tuesday, man. Big-time stuff.
Donaldson: For me, everything became about the block. “Life in the Fast Lane” backed with “Hotel California,” “Purple Haze” backed with “All Along the Watchtower,” “Stairway to Heaven” backed with “Kashmir.”
Darrel Schmidt, station manager, WMNX: First time I heard a block I was livid. I called Alex immediately. “Did I just hear two songs in a row by the same artist? What in the hell is going on?”
Donaldson: I think some of the suits thought it was forced, but I’m a DJ, man. I do my thing. You just count the money, chief, and leave the rocking out to me.
Tarpley: Oh man, Schmidt. He was so conservative. He just could not get his head around where I was coming from and then BOOM! In ’81, Loverboy comes out with “Working for the Weekend.” That was a game changer. First time I heard that track I knew. We had the perfect segue into Block Party Weekend.
Schmidt: After “Working for the Weekend” I relaxed a bit.
II. “You don’t own anything in this game, at least not for long.”
Cassie McKaye, DJ, “Mother”, KSQY, San Diego: I remember this guy Bob Donaldson came to KSQY from some gig in Minnesota. This was ’83. He went by Dodgy Bob on air and had this fake English accent and talked about Block Party Weekends, getting the Led out and double shots. We thought we were cool but none of us had ever seen anything like that.
Donaldson: I think I blew their minds in San Diego. They were still playing “American Pie” and shit. You can’t get a block out of Don McLean.
McKaye: There was some tension. Bob was part of the original Block Party Weekend at WMNX, but at KSQY he’s weekdays. He’s trying to do blocks of the Eagles, the Stones, Boston on a Tuesday.
Donaldson: I remember doing a block of Kansas on a Tuesday. In the middle of the day. Jerry lost his mind. I thought I was done.
Jerry Taylor, former program manager, KSQY: My philosophy is you do not do a block on a weekday. You just don’t. It’s Block Party Weekend. Get it? Emphasis on “weekend.” Work hard, party hard, rock out with your cock out, but there’s got to be rules. This is a business.
Donaldson: You don’t own anything in this game, at least not for long. We owned Block Party Weekend at MNX for maybe a month. I’m on vacation in Columbus, Ohio, on a Friday night, driving around the bypass listening to ZZ Top on WCOH, absolutely out of my gourd on ludes and Jack, and I hear, “Columbus, we’re kicking off your Block Party Weekend with The Who! Who Are You, Columbus?” WCOH. Are you kidding me? By the time I got to KSQY it was everywhere.
Dan Reynolds, DJ, “The Creeper”, WMNX: It was mostly unspoken but we all felt it. If every weekend is a Block Party Weekend then the Block Party Weekend starts to lose its specialness, and, personally, I think it disrespects the music. Sure, you had the clowns who were gonna play a block of Seger every weekend regardless, but not me. I wanted something different. I wanted something bigger, man.
Tarpley: Block Party Weekend was supposed to be all about the unexpected. You’re hanging with your chick, rocking out to the “Son” (editor’s note: “Carry On My Wayward Son”), and as the song starts to fade out you get that little twinge of disappointment where you’re like, oh man, wish that song was another five minutes long and then we drop some “Dust” (“Dust In The Wind”) on you. What? Didn’t see that coming. But we’d taken it as far as we could. Everybody was doing it. We needed something new.
Donaldson: I was burned out on it. Just totally smoked. I think the audience was too.
III. “I knew immediately. This was huge.”
Tarpley: Let’s see, it was spring of ’85 and WMNX is sponsoring the Memorial Day chili cook-off and concert at the fair grounds with .38 Special headlining. After the show, we’re backstage in the tent with the Special. It’s me, The Creeper, Freddy “Nightmare” Krueger is there, Ann Scott, everybody. We’re smoking and killing beers and The Creeper asks one of the guys in the band if they’re coming back through Minneapolis.
Reynolds: I’m talking to Donnie Van Zant a bit because he’s from Jacksonville and I’d been there once, so I’m asking him if they’re going to do any more shows in the area.
Mark Krueger, DJ, “Freddy Nightmare Krueger,” WMNX: I think they were in talks to support Ted Nugent on some fall gigs in October.
Reynolds: He says they got a deal to play with Ted Nugent in October. I’m like, holy shit. Nugent and .38 Special? Are you kidding me? I break out the horns and yell, “October just became Rocktober! Wooooo!”
Tarpley: I dropped my beer.
Ann Scott, DJ, “Ann Scott,” WMNX: Stone silence. And this is a tent full of DJs! Absolute, total silence.
Reynolds: It got real quiet. I didn’t understand what was happening.
Tarpley: Ann tells him to say it again and he just stands there so I say it for him: “October just became Rocktober!”
Krueger: The band didn’t say much but I could tell they were pretty impressed. I mean, I think they were. It was right after the show so they were probably beat.
Donnie Van Zant, founding member, guitar, .38 Special: I’m not sure what you’re asking me.
Taylor: Alex called me in August. I pick up the phone and he’s being all mysterious and weird and like, “Hey man, what’s happening? What you got scheduled for the fall?”
Van Zant: Minneapolis?
Tarpley: One word: “Rocktober”!
Taylor: I knew immediately. This was huge. Huge.
Van Zant: I don’t remember ever being in Minneapolis.
Tarpley: The key to the whole thing though, and why I needed Jerry on board, was we had to take this thing format-wide. After everybody took the original Block Party Weekend and twisted it into whatever they wanted, we needed a law. We needed something homogenous across regions and time zones.
Van Zant: The entire month of October? That’s ridiculous.
Reynolds: Alex and Jerry get this idea for a petition and so by Rocktober first (laughs), which back then of course was still just October first, we really started pushing this thing hard on the air.
Van Zant: Look, just because you say something on the radio a lot doesn’t make it a law.
Krueger: Oh yeah, I went way overboard. I was off the rails with it. Like, I was “It’s Rocktober!” before every single song.
Van Zant: No, I’m not going to say it.
Taylor: So it’s the middle of the month and Rocktober is literally everywhere. The signatures are flowing in, the DJs are on board, but Alex is freaking out.
Tarpley: I felt like we were missing something crucial.
Van Zant: Fuck you, I’m not saying it.
Ed Henson, voiceover artist: Alex Tarpley called me sometime in October that year and said he had a project for me.
IV. “But that voice. The special effects. ‘Rrrrrrrocktober!’ It was worth it.”
Tarpley: I called Ed Henson, who was far and away the best voiceover man I knew. Guy voiced liquidation sales, carpet sales, car sales, a real pro. I don’t know about Jerry but I knew that if we could standardize a Rocktober voiceover for the entire classic rock format… well.
Henson: A voiceover artist rarely lays down the perfect track. Rarely. But I felt with “Rocktober” I really nailed it.
Tarpley: Henson nailed it.
McKaye: Jerry came running into the booth with a tape. I remember he slammed it in the slot where I’d queued up the next commercial spots so we wound up with a minute-and-a-half of dead air. But that voice. The special effects. “Rrrrrrrocktober!” It was worth it.
Henson: I never listen to classic rock, absolutely hate the stuff. I’m a jazz man. But I’m driving down I-75 near Knoxville and out of curiosity I turn over to WTNT. I even remember the song, “More Than a Feeling” by Boston, which I also hate. And so I’m waiting to hear my spot and finally it comes on: “Rrrrrrocktober!” But it’s not my Rocktober. I mean, it’s mine, but it’s not mine. They added an echo layer to it, they slowed it down, they pushed it to Dolby B from Dolby C. It was a mess. And there were these laser sounds or whatever that roll off the final ‘r’ in “Rrrrrrocktober,” like pshew pshew pshew pshew pshew pshew, and I was just… I was angry. Still am.
V. “I was a part of history.”
Tarpley: We did it. We really did it.
Donaldson: It was always only ever about the music for me, but this was different. Just to know that you were a part of something, I don’t know, bigger than yourself.
Henson: Anger. Just a lot of hate… and anger… and bitterness, but mostly hate… and anger.
McKaye: I get a little disappointed every year around Halloween because it means Rocktober! really only has 30 days, not the full 31.
Van Zant: I seriously have no idea what you’re talking about. This whole thing seems made up to me.
Reynolds: Amazing. I was a part of history. Me and Donnie Van Zant and .38 Special. Those guys are legends and I’m right there with them.
Taylor: My dream is that one day, 50 years from now, my daughter’s daughter is driving with her kids, which, of course, I’m assuming we’ll still have cars 50 years from now, but whatever, they’re driving, or maybe their iPods are broken or something and there’s a bad storm or, better, a tornado warning and the power goes out and so all they have is this little battery-powered or hand-crank radio and the only station they get is a classic rock station and it’s October and they’re listening for news of the tornado warning and the station is in the middle of a block of The Doors because, as a former program manager, I know you do not let an opportunity to lay down “Riders on the Storm” in the middle of a tornado warning go by, and then the song ends and the DJ says all the funnel clouds are headed out of town and everybody’s safe but maybe there’s a little damage to the roof of the Kroger and he puts on a mattress sale and furniture liquidation commercial and takes a deep breath and just before my daughter’s daughter and her kids turn off the radio the DJ comes back on and says, “How about that tornado? Wow! Settling back in, here’s a block of AC/DC,” and he presses that button on the console where the loop is stored, probably it’s something all digital, a computer file, and just before the guitar comes on in the intro to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Ed Henson says, “Rrrrrrocktober!” Yeah, that’s it. That’s my dream.
Kevin Depew is a writer and editor living in New York City. He is available in all the usual locations, and sometimes writes a comment here at The Awl under the alias Screen Name.
Photo by credit_00, via Flickr.