Blur’s eponymous 1997 album, the band’s fifth, was an attempt to escape the slick quirkiness of their previous ‘Britpop’ best-sellers and to delve into darker lyrical waters as well as distorting their sonic tapestry so it had a deliberate Lo-fi feel. It was evident in the singles lifted from the album, particularly the perennially popular ‘Song 2’ – or perhaps better known as ‘Woo-hoo!’ Guitarist Graham Coxon’s ‘solo’ contribution to the album, ‘You’re So Great’, indulges in this conscious audio downgrading by incorporating the kind of crackles associated with old vinyl into the track while his guitar sounds as though it’s being played on an archaic tape-recorder, the batteries of which need replacing.
Listening to this for the first time in a while the other week reminded me of something easily forgotten – just how different our perception of sound was back in the days when the majority of broadcast music we heard was not only in mono, but emanated from medium wave radio.
FM radio was the sound equivalent of colour television in the late 60s/early 70s – an expensive novelty reserved for the lucky few, even though we were promised it was radio’s future. FM transmissions on the radio were largely limited to experimental classical broadcasts on Radio 3, deemed the best way of testing the quality of FM equipment. As with watching colour programmes on a monochrome TV, one could listen to an FM broadcast on MW, but it would sound the same as everything else in the schedules unless one was prepared to fork out for the full FM set with twin speakers; and even if one did, the majority of the line-up was still in mono medium wave anyway.
Most of the listening public relied on radios such as the trendy transistor, which has its single speaker built-in; the ‘trannie’ was a portable lightweight object that could be carried around like some twentieth century forerunner of the iPod; by contrast, listening on FM required heavyweight gear that would be fixed in a permanent location as the piece of household furniture it was. Though not quite as faraway-sounding as short wave, medium wave as a system for transmitting music certainly had its limitations. For one thing, there was the permanent background interference hissing away with the occasional rude intrusion of French or German voices strolling by; for another, there was what it did to the music itself.
Bass-heavy at one end and extremely tinny at the other, with the two meeting in the middle in a mushy, monophonic thunderstorm, medium wave pop was almost an unacknowledged genre. If one went out and spent 75p on a single from Woolie’s, the sound on the record player as the needle touched down would be like listening to a remix of the radio version that had prompted the purchase. Indeed, there were many records I recalled from childhood I never actually heard in genuine crystal clear stereo until well into my teens, when a few would turn up on budget compilation LPs bought by my dad. And quite a lot didn’t sound as good as I remembered them, to be honest. Glam Rock in particular was a style perfect for medium wave radio and could well explain to a small degree why it was so dominant in the singles charts from 1972-74. Nothing else aired on daytime Radio 1 at the time sounded as explosive and exciting when heard via the humble trannie.
The increasing availability, not to mention affordability, of the audio cassette as the 70s progressed enabled a top 20 packed with too many good tunes to buy to be recorded and played at the moment of one’s choosing; the fact that sticking a tape-recorder microphone in front of the radio was the main means of doing so meant that prototype ‘mix-tapes’ were exclusively mono and exclusively medium wave. Those hits that weren’t picked up on 45 were therefore only known for years in their MW incarnation. When the early selling point of CDs was how the ear could hear layers of sound undetectable on vinyl, the sonic difference between medium wave and FM was even greater.
By the end of the 70s, more slots in music radio schedules were given over to FM transmissions, though the FM frequency on the BBC was usually shared between its four stations, meaning FM was scattered across the network at different times of the day. British radio was still a long way from reaching the all-day FM broadcasts that had facilitated the success of album rock in the States, something that could arguably be held responsible for the divergence in the US and UK singles charts that took place during the decade. The Eagles, Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac sounded great on FM but not as impressive on MW, whereas T. Rex, Slade and Gary Glitter impacted best on medium wave.
By the middle of the 80s, full-time FM radio was inevitable. The Kids were now listening to all their music on hi-fi systems or ghetto-blasters; stereo was expected and mono wasn’t good enough. Radio 1 conceded in 1988 and went FM for its entire broadcasting day. The next generation of pop pickers would henceforth only ever hear the hits on the radio the same as they sounded when they went out and bought the product. There would be no audible distinction anymore. Just as nobody under 35 could today imagine watching TV in permanent black & white, the idea of hearing music on the radio in such poor quality sound would be inconceivable.
However, dig out a few of your old chart tapes, if you’ve still got them stored away somewhere (and if you’ve actually got the means of playing them anymore), and remember how radically different familiar tunes sounded when filtered through a sonically inadequate system. This was how they sounded when you first heard them; and that gives them a special element that no contemporary mp3 or digital sheen can better.
© The Editor