Thursday, 15 November 2012

Turn on, tune in, tape dropout

There have been various programmes on the radio to commemorate the fact that it's now ninety years since the BBC started broadcasting. This post isn't going to be a digest of them - though I register, without much interest, that Damon Albarn's recent soundscape met with less than universal acclaim - but I thought one series might be of particular interest to readers of this blog, as it's a history of radio in the US and UK, presented by the Beeb's American import Paul Gambaccini (above). You can find available episodes here and listen to them via BBC iplayer.

Episode Two is entitled The Moondog Years, and presumably concentrates on Alan Freed. It won't be available on iplayer until after its transmission next Tuesday night, but I have heard Episode One, which takes us from the very beginnings, and is an agreeable listen, with lots of archive audio, though the very first radio broadcast didn't survive and it seems we have to take the broadcaster's word that it actually happened. (Only a friend was listening, apparently.)

By way of enticement there's a bit of personal Gambaccini reminiscence thrown in at the beginning of the first programme - the shock of hearing his father swear and rush to turn the set off as rock'n'roll began blasting out, which had the unintended effect of binding the young Gambo to the music ever after - but after that it's a more general account which could have been presented equally well by any number of people, so Episode Two will probably be more interesting. And perhaps in a later episode there will be some insights into the Radio 1 environment which Gambaccini entered.

On a related note, I have almost finished reading Andy Kershaw's autobiography, No Off Switch. I have to admit I didn't read it in order, darting first to his experience of the wunnerful BBC youth station. Gambaccini was one of the few DJs who were looked on kindly by Johns Peel and Walters and their unexpected offspring Kershaw (who sat, Oor Wullie-like, on an unpturned bucket in Room 318, there being no room amid the clutter for a third chair). Radio 1 bosses may have been looking for a rival to, and eventual replacement for, John Peel, but putting him in the same office as Peel and Walters, his producer, "almost guaranteed we became brothers-in-arms", reinforcing Peel's position and creating "a radio station within a radio station."
 In no time at all, we set about erecting the barricades. Few of our Radio 1 colleagues were allowed across the threshold. Fellow DJs given rare access were Paul Gambaccini (whom we considered our intellectual equal and a fellow music obsessive), Annie Nightingale (battle-hardened survivor), Alan Freeman (lovely old cove), Janice Long (our scally mate) and Kid Jensen (nice lad).
No Off Switch is a very enjoyable read and I regret not starting at the beginning. In  fact I am now almost at Chapter One: for me, if for no other reader, Kershaw keeps getting younger and younger. The Peel stuff is fascinating, because it's by the one surviving member of that triumvirate. Peel is remembered fondly by his protege but not as a latter-day saint. In particular, Kershaw records occasions when Peel was too frightened about his own position to stick up for the younger DJ, only to find himself similarly dumped on by Radio 1 some years later. It's not particularly bitter: Kershaw notes that Peel had a family to support by that time. But it's Walters who receives more praise, as the man who went in to battle for Peel and Kershaw and enabled them to survive for so long.

When - the bruiser Walters having long retired - Peel finds himself under threat, his programmes pushed further and further into the night - in an effort, Kershaw says, by Andy Parfitt to demoralise him without having "John's broadcasting blood on his hands" - Kershaw suggests he speaks to Jenny Abramsky, Controller of Network Radio, and threaten to walk out on Radio 4's Home Truths, by then "a national institution."
 "Oh no," he murmured, "I couldn't possibly do that."
His last words to me, before he shambled away towards Oxford Circus, were, "It's killing me."
Some weeks later he went on the holiday to Peru where he died of a heart attack:
Just minutes before he was struck down, John sighed to Sheila, "I do miss Walters."
The Peel and Walters material is a relatively small part of the book, which also includes details of the painful split with his partner and separation from his children, his obsession with motorcycles, his gradual immersion in music - which I'm only learning about in retrospect, so kids, read this the right round: it's not Betrayal by Harold Pinter, you get me? But it is sparkling and funny throughout. Alright, at times individual sentences get the tiniest bit convoluted, but that's a negligible price to pay for a fairground ride like this.

There was another programme about broadcasting on Radio 2 last night, The Listeners' Archive (details here). It didn't sound all that promising - it was about programmes which ordinary listeners had recorded off-air and returned to the Beeb as part of an amnesty for this technically illegal activity. We heard segments of a range of programmes (including Peel and Pete Drummond co-hosting an early Top Gear, and Tony Blackburn's very first BBC broadcast, complete with that signature breakfast theme tune but without Arnold's doggy punctuations), but what gave the programme an added interest was that the collectors of these tapes or whatever were interviewed and asked about the circumstances in which they had recorded the programmes. Occasionally it was a punter who wanted a record of a show he had taken part in, but more usually it seemed to be people who were recording more systematically.

I don't think it was said outright, but what came over was that there was a kind of indefinable magic about those voices, wacky or suave, making it up as they went along, for hours at a stretch. They were recorded, captured for posterity, because their seemingly trivial craft was important, shouldn't be lost, was the underlying message. And because the music they introduced was quickly faded out, so that you got two or three segments of their linking chat in a wunner, it became more obvious that the best of them were responsible for a kind of music themselves, even if it wasn't particularly to your taste.

Yes, even Tony Blackburn. I remember listening to his breakfast show in the early seventies, hearing him introduce the Chi-Lites' Have You Seen Her? as I got dressed by the radiator in my bedroom on a dull winter morning, and doing the same about twenty years later when he was presenting a similar show on London's Capital Gold, playing that same song - and there didn't see  to be much difference between the two versions of Tony. When Steve Jones, later of Radio Clyde, briefly deputised for Blackburn at Radio 1, he seemed to be attempting a carbon copy, as though by way of acknowledging that Tone had got it right, so why change it for a couple of weeks? Also, unless I'm dreaming, sometimes Tony took you by surprise: I am willing to swear that Fairport Convention's Babbacombe Lee was once his Record of the Week ("PLAYED EVERY DAY! HERE IT IS ...").

I also recall that he was vaguely disturbed by Ray Stephens' Turn Your Radio On, specifically citing the line "Get in touch with God" as one he couldn't understand. Yet there he was (and on some station, doubtless still is), travelling unseen through the ether and whispering intimately into people's ears, like Wings of Desire. Touchingly, I saw on a recent TV appearance that he has forsaken the toupee: all seemed the same until he slightly inclined his head and you saw he was no more hirsute that Ian Hislop. I can't find a handy image of this online, but when I first saw it on TV, I paused and rewound to capture the moment he inclined his head and all was revealed. It must have been a conscious decision, or at least a risk he chose to undergo. What next - Macca undyed?

I recorded a lot of radio over the years, but usually for timeshift purposes: again and again I taped over episodes of Radio 4's Weekending which I wish I had now. Yes, I know lots of people have a low opinion of it, but we're talking a whole heap of years, and I remember particular editions which seemed pretty good, unless I simply didn't have the sophistication to know it was already old hat. I suppose I'm talking late seventies - I seem to remember a few editions costarring Martin Jarvis which were better than average.

But when I think back to my years of radio listening it's not John Peel, nor yet Andy Kershaw (I was a bit too late for him) who inspire the fondest memories. I have written already about the music broadcasters who did so much to shape my tastes - Ken Sykora, Hubert Gregg and Benny Green among them - but the programmes which brought the purest, unfettered delight weren't actually musical. Well, one was, but it was within the confines of Radio 2's evening entertainment slot.

I speak of Pop Score (or POP SCORE!) as it was always announced. This was way before the days of the supercilious Never Mind the Buzzcocks. The contestants were a mix of dinosaur DJs and 60s pop stars (Helen Shapiro seemed to be on a lot). I think Pete Murray introduced it (at this point a responsible  blogger would check this kind of thing but I don't want to interrupt my flow).

What I remember most about it is the sense of goodheartedness which the dinosaurs brought to it. It may have been essentially trivial and I don't know whether there was a three line whip to make DJs attend (after all, they could have been opening a supermarket - or another branch of Brentford Nylons, in the case of Fluff), but the overall impression was of immense conviviality, and I recall snuggling down in the dark beneath a less than adequate sleeping bag doubling as a quilt on many a freezing winter evening (it was transmitted around seven but bed seemed the place to luxuriate in it), part of the happy crowd watching performers who belonged to them.

There were also other programmes which felt like the audio equivalent of hot water bottles: Shaw Taylor's The Law Game and interviews with variety era comedians which always seemed to crop up in the Radio 2 schedules, but Pop Score, perhaps because I could simultaneously engage with the questions and bask in the chummy warmth engendered by the DJs, is the one I most wish was still around. I did  hear an old episode recently - not quite old enough as Pete Murray (if it had been he) had been replaced by Ken Bruce and I suppose the dinosaur's kingdom was already displaying the odd sign of structural damage. Maybe, if someone suddenly sent me a complete run (hint hint) there wouldn't be the magic I seem to remember, but at the time it probably felt like an early validation of my compendious interest in music, a skill which might somehow, at some point, pay dividends.

And it has, in a way. At least, my day job is involved with, among other things, a wide range of music: buying it, cataloguing it, adding notes. It's like a great big Pop Score every day, sort of.

 But I can't end on a downbeat. So finally, HERE IT IS, PLAYED EVERY DAY ... THE TONY BLACKBURN SHOW RECORD OF THE WEEK. Honest ...



Download a 1985 edition of Pop Score from Andy Walmsley's blog here.
2005 Gillian Reynolds article on John Peel and Home Truths here

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