A week from today will mark half-a-century since the day the nation’s stations received the most comprehensive facelift in their history; and, lest we forget, fifty years ago we only had three national radio stations. Yes, there were the pirates, though they – bar Caroline – were poised to sail away into the sunset; officially, the country had just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. There were no local BBC stations, and the Independent Local Radio network was still six years away. Once the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act sank the pirate ships, listeners were left with Luxembourg and its erratic reception if they sought an alternative to the BBC’s wireless output.

If one is to credit pirate radio with one thing it really should be giving the kiss of life to an ailing medium. From being very much the poor relation before the war, television had gathered pace with the arrival of ITV in 1955 and by the early 60s had usurped radio as the people’s choice. In response, all the BBC’s creative energies were directed towards TV and radio was left to its own devices, with only the Third Programme receiving special treatment courtesy of its high standing in the artistic community. Listening figures were plummeting and it didn’t help that, with Britain the epicentre of a pop revolution conquering the globe, BBC radio’s concession to the revolution was limited to the likes of ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’.

Belated recognition that the BBC needed to reflect the changing climate on the airwaves led to plans being hatched for a new addition to the existing trio of national stations. But it wasn’t simply a case of the Beeb replicating what the pirates had done so successfully since 1964; Musicians Union rules over needle time meant the in-house BBC orchestras that provided so much of the light ‘mood music’ that had soundtracked the daily chores of the housewife for a couple of decades were not going to be disbanded overnight. A BBC idea of a pirate radio station risked being the aural equivalent of a pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad dad dancing around the living room to The Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Light Programme in a kaftan. Live music was going to be as much a staple of what became Radio 1 as spinning discs, though the fact this ruling eventually gave birth to the legendary Peel Sessions was pure serendipity.

With the new law enforcing the illegality of the pirates, the entire staff of DJs that had become household names to anyone under 25 were about to be made redundant; by happy coincidence, a new employer was looking for a workforce with their precise qualifications. So it was that the cream of the pirate crop sat alongside a handful of veteran broadcasting stalwarts to pose for a photo that used to be re-staged every ten years until the participants started dying or ended up in prison. Radio 1 had recruited almost all the pirate DJs, and when the new station went on air with Caroline’s Tony Blackburn on 30 September 1967 – preceded by heavy promotion in the Radio Times and its ‘swinging’ front cover for the week – the pirate model sufficed for the first ninety minutes. The second programme on Radio 1 was ‘Junior Choice’ with Leslie Crowther.

The wavelength sharing between Radio 1 and its new sibling Radio 2 was scattered throughout that opening day and this continued to be the case for more or less the whole first decade of the station. The recurring term ‘As Radio 2’ in the Radio Times listings for Radio 1 was a regular feature that meant any hip ‘n’ groovy listener either had to endure Light Programme leftovers for a couple of hours in the middle of the schedule or simply switch off. Mind you, it’s worth remembering that DJs we all associate with Radio 2 – such as Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young – were part of the Radio 1 line-up in the beginning.

The schizophrenic nature of the station, viewed by many as a pale imitation of the pirates at best and little short of a charlatan at worst, helped prompt 1969’s landmark in-house report, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, that sought to rectify the problems. By the early 70s, however, a generation too young to remember the pirates had taken to the station as it gradually grew into the familiar form those of us old enough can still recall, and listening figures reflected this.

The ‘star’ DJs such as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and ‘Emperor’ Rosko were all familiar faces as presenters of ‘Top of the Pops’, and the mutual appreciation society between BBC TV’s leading music show and Radio 1 benefitted both. In the 70s, the Radio 1 DJs were almost as famous as the pop stars whose careers they had the power to make or break – opening supermarkets, judging wet T-shirt contests, and drawing huge crowds when making prats of themselves on stage during the annual summer institution of the Radio 1 Roadshow. This was the heyday of the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ incarnation of Radio 1, though it also spanned the 80s; regardless of personnel changes, the mid-Atlantic accent, the bomber jacket and the cheesy persona had already been established as a mould, whether inhabited by Simon Bates or Bruno Brookes.

By the time of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s painfully accurate parody, the BBC was concerned that a radio station supposedly aimed at an audience in its teens and twenties had retained listeners of a much older age range that hadn’t followed the traditional migratory route to Radio 2. The call went out to Matthew Bannister and what followed was a traumatic period in which Radio 1 didn’t seem to know what it was (or who it was for) anymore. The old school were shown the door, and after the crash-and-burn era of Chris Evans, a semblance of stability returned to the station as it entered the 21st century.

I haven’t listened to Radio 1 for a good decade, so I can’t comment on its current state of health with any authority. Last time I tuned in, Chris Moyles was still the host of the breakfast show and Jo Whiley was still espousing all she regarded as ‘cool’ mid-morning. I stopped listening not necessarily because I found the music being played increasingly irritating, but because I simply couldn’t stand the prattling DJs. At the same time, I recognise this has always been a regular factor for the listener where Radio 1 is concerned, and probably always will be.

Over the next seven days, I intend to profile all four stations that arrived on our dials fifty years ago this week, so stay tuned for Radio 2…

© The Editor


I wouldn’t ordinarily mark a birthday on here, but I make an honourable exception today because I felt like it. Marc Almond is 60 today – yes, you heard it right. Bloody sixty! Anyone witness to the dramatic debut of the twenty-something Soft Cell on ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1981 will probably struggle to accept that fact, but it’s true. In a way, however, Marc Almond has grown into his middle-aged skin rather well; a noted admirer of older performers such as Scott Walker and the whole torch-song genre, Almond never possessed the juvenile mindset of Rock ‘n’ Roll and its desperate search for a fountain of youth. He seemed suited to the crooner persona, and you can’t be a crooner in skinny jeans.

To have made it to 60 at all is quite an achievement for Almond. In 2004 he was involved in a potentially-fatal road accident when he was thrown from his motorbike near St Paul’s Cathedral, leaving him in a coma for several weeks. It was quite disconcerting watching the regional news on Yorkshire Television at the time this happened, as the accident was presented as a virtual obituary. Thankfully, Almond pulled through, and the proper obituaries could be shelved for another day. The fact YTV covered the accident in such a major way reflected the impact as a ‘local act’ Soft Cell had in the early 80s; but they had quite an impact nationwide.

Gary Numan had pioneered the escape of electronic music from the experimental, avant-garde ghetto it had long been assigned all the way to the top of the charts. ‘Are Friends Electric?’ hitting No.1 in the summer of 1979 was a pivotal moment in the transformation of synthesizers being merely rock band decoration to becoming lead instruments in their own right and it proved such a sound was commercial dynamite in the right hands. It took a year or two for Numan to be joined by other electronic (or ‘Synth Pop’) acts, but 1981 was a crucial year in the change. It began with Ultravox’s grandiose ballad ‘Vienna’ stuck behind Joe bloody Dolce at No.2 and ended with The Human League occupying the pinnacle with ‘Don’t You Want Me?’ In between these two events was a minor revolution.

Along with the arrival of a band such as Depeche Mode, who dispensed with the guitar-bass-and drums formula altogether in favour of a purely electronic armoury, there was a rash of painted faces gate-crashing stale pop programmes that signified a sea-change. Inspired by the ‘anyone can do it’ DIY Punk ethic as well as the synthesized soundscapes of Kraftwerk and the arty Glam of the previous decade (as represented by Bowie and Roxy), the newcomers were often lumped in with London’s New Romantic movement and its most striking spokesman, Steve Strange of Visage. But the likes of Phil Oakey, David Sylvian and Marc Almond had been operating in isolation on the underground grapevine for quite some time, biding their time until the mainstream caught up with them. And in 1981 it did.

Marc Almond and David Ball were both refugees from rundown British seaside towns (Southport and Blackpool respectively) who forged an alliance at Leeds University in the late 70s, a seat of learning receptive to musical misfits at the time; Scritti Politti were formed there more or less simultaneously with Soft Cell. Ball and Almond’s project was initially more of an experimental performance outfit; few would’ve earmarked the pair for future pop stardom. But the kitsch theatrical garishness they embraced, combined with Ball’s synths and Almond’s outré appearance, was soon to cross over from limited cult appeal to the top ten because the top ten was suddenly ready for them.

Signing to one of the numerous thriving indie labels of the era, Soft Cell’s recording career began inauspiciously with a characteristically uncommercial electronic work-out called ‘Memorabilia’; but following a headline-grabbing turn at Leeds’ Futurama Festival, one of the must-see showcases for new ‘alternative’ acts at the turn of the 80s, they covered a little-known Northern Soul classic called ‘Tainted Love’. Marc Almond had been introduced to the track via his teenage devotion to T.Rex; Marc Bolan’s girlfriend Gloria Jones had sung the original. Released in the summer of ’81, the rise of ‘Tainted Love’ gathered pace when – as happened so often back then – Soft Cell were invited on to ‘Top of the Pops’.

The Sex Pistols remained the benchmark for outrage at the beginning of the 80s and few thought their particular brand of it could be surpassed. But 1981 was the year of a new kind of subversion, and – along with Phil Oakey’s unique haircut and pierced nipple – few did it better than Soft Cell. Clad in black and camp as a row of tents, Marc Almond provoked an instant generational divide in the nation’s households, one that accelerated when ‘Tainted Love’ went all the way to No.1 and ended up as the year’s best-selling single. It even made the US top ten, spending more weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 than ‘Rock Around the Clock’ (excuse the Paul Gambaccini moment).

The first duo to have such an impact on the charts since the equally eccentric Sparks in the 70s, Soft Cell became an overnight sensation, following ‘Tainted Love’ with a string of top tenners over the next year, including the brilliantly overwrought ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ and the fantastic ‘Torch’. Their foray into the US charts enabled them to become regulars on New York’s club scene, where they sampled ecstasy years before it became the clubbers’ drug of choice this side of the pond; but the unexpected pop stardom they were hardly prepared for punctured the left-field principles their generation still held dear, and they embarked upon a somewhat self-destructive path; this was particularly evident on the superbly fractured albums, ‘The Art of Falling Apart’ and ‘This Last Night in Sodom’.

Already fronting Marc and the Mambas when Soft Cell were still operational, the band’s split in 1984 saw Almond establish an idiosyncratic solo career that has remained his trademark ever since. He stubbornly follows his own path, occasionally gracing the upper echelons of the charts and even returning to the top spot in a duet with Gene Pitney in 1989; but what makes Almond special is that he belongs to that elite group whose members have included the likes of Julian Cope, Roy Harper, Richard Thompson and Billy MacKenzie, the Great British Musical Outsiders who do what they want to do, whether the wider public wants it or not.

Almond’s sexuality, whilst as obvious as Freddie Mercury’s, remained something that was left to the imagination to begin with; being openly gay was still perceived as career suicide in the early 80s; even Boy George avoided the issue. Come 1984 and the arrival of Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat, however, the closet door had been kicked open and Almond no longer had to change the subject. But their breakthrough wouldn’t have been possible had not Marc Almond invaded our living rooms before them. Lest we forget, the gloriously kinky ‘Sex Dwarf’ video appeared two years prior to ‘Relax’. We live in different times today, and it’s thanks to the likes of Marc Almond that we do. So raise a glass to one of our one-offs. They’re fewer and far between in 2017, so we need to cherish the ones we’ve still got.

© The Editor


1975’s ‘The Goodies Rule O.K.’ was the undoubted masterpiece to emanate from the most popular TV comedy team of their day, an hour-long mini-movie in which they satirised both pop and politics with surreal expertise. In one sequence, the chart dominance of their fictitious band is reflected via a fake ‘Top of the Pops’ top ten rundown of the kind the programme used as an introduction at the time, with all ten places occupied by Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Nothing of that nature had ever happened in the real world; there had been the odd occasion when one act had held the top two positions in the singles charts, but the UK Top 40 hadn’t seen anything comparable to the landmark occasion one week in 1964 when The Beatles owned the entire top five best-selling singles on America’s Billboard Hot 100.

Sorry to get all Paul Gambaccini, but even when one takes into account that the US charts were traditionally a mix of sales and airplay whereas the British equivalent was solely based on records sold, to occupy all top five places was one hell of an achievement. It was only made possible due to Capitol Records exploiting the atom bomb of American Beatlemania by re-releasing all the band’s previous stateside flops along with their current material. Singles releases in the UK were more measured during those heady days, usually separated by three or four months, so it was rare for an act to have more than one single on the charts at the same time.

By the 1990s, the rules of the game had changed a little. In order to reverse falling singles sales, record companies hit on the idea of giving radio and TV stations exclusive previews of new releases upwards of four weeks in advance of anyone being able to buy them in the shops. On the eve of actual release, record-buyers’ ears were ringing with the tune in question to such a degree that it was a dead cert said single would debut at No.1 and would inevitably plummet down the charts in the weeks after due to the majority of its sales coming in the first few days.

This practice devalued the previous kudos of crashing in at the top spot, which had been something only a small number of acts had managed before; indeed, when going straight in at No.1 required something approaching half-a-million sales, it was such a rare occurrence that after Slade’s ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ entered at the top spot in 1973, no other single did likewise until The Jam’s ‘Going Underground’ in 1980. But the moving of the chart goalposts in the 90s also meant that fewer records were climbing up to No.1 anymore and fewer still could hold onto No.1 for more than that solitary week they debuted there. For ten consecutive weeks from December 1998 to February 1999, there was a different chart-topper every single week.

Other gimmicks during this era included Indie band The Wedding Present releasing a single for every month of 1992, meaning they enjoyed twelve Top 40 ‘hits’ that year – even though none spent more than a fortnight on the charts. The Manic Street Preachers, on the other hand, released two new singles on the same day in 2001, though neither entered higher than No.8. By the end of the twentieth century, downloads (mostly illegal) were affecting singles sales anew, and though it took some time, the ailing music industry eventually embraced the changes.

This week, Ed Sheeran – that guitar-playing Cabbage Patch Doll seemingly manufactured by a Formica focus group – holds nine of the top ten places in what passes for today’s singles chart. You heard that right. None of those nine songs are there due to physical sales; they’re ‘virtual’ singles whose presence there is down to legal streaming sites such as Spotify. Had the technology existed in the 60s, no doubt The Beatles would have done likewise, for many of their album tracks received as much airplay as their singles; but what the Top 40 does now is reflect album listening habits, with every song on a popular album eligible for inclusion in the singles chart if enough people pay to listen to it on their iPods. Is it really worth even having a singles chart when this is the case?

The single as a specialised art-form in itself could once condense the entire breadth and depth of emotions and musical melodrama that most acts spread over an entire album into three and-a-half minutes; and while the likes of ‘Virginia Plain’, ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ or ‘Party Fears Two’ came from artists with more than one ace up their sleeves, had that trio of 45s belonged to one-hit wonders, it’d be fair to speculate that everything they might ever have to say had been crammed onto that solitary seven-inch artefact – just like ‘Sugar Sugar’; and saying everything in three and-a-half minutes is something few can master anymore because the single is effectively dead.

Due to the manner in which big-selling albums can slow burn over a calendar year, the inclusion of tracks from them that haven’t even been released as singles via streaming sales means the singles chart has ground to a halt compared to the frenzied pace of the late 90s. If ‘Top of the Pops’ still existed, the viewer wouldn’t notice much action in the Top 40 unless the programme was only transmitted on a monthly basis; apparently, last year we even had a Bryan Adams moment when a record called ‘One Dance’ sat atop the chart for fifteen weeks. And can you imagine a current edition of TOTP as the presenter links between Ed Sheeran at No.9 and Ed Sheeran at No.3?

The continuation of the so-called singles chart when it’s essentially an album tracks chart seems quite a pointless exercise, an irrelevance that is of no real interest to anyone who doesn’t work for the music industry. ‘The Kids’ couldn’t care less from what I can gather, so who else is it really for? When that monolith corporation known as UMG owns all but a tiny handful of all the old record labels, when TOTP is now simply a selective archive show over on BBC4, and when the music press – traditional breaker of new bands – more or less no longer exists, it’s evident the framework that worked in tandem with the singles chart has gone. Maybe it’s time for what remains of the singles chart to follow suit.

© The Editor


RTSay the words ‘Grange Hill’ to anyone of a certain age and a flurry of names will enter their head – Tucker Jenkins, Benny Green, Trisha Yates, Gripper Stebson and poor old ‘Row-land’ will probably spring to mind before any others. Plotlines will no doubt be quickly evoked too. There was one particular plotline in the early 80s that perfectly captured the hormonal turmoil of nascent adolescence, when an absence of sexual fact is compensated for by sexual fiction, though the two have a habit of blurring in the imagination. Yes, we might remember Duane having the hots for ‘Sexy Lexy’ and even enrolling in the extracurricular computer course in order to gaze at the object of his pubescent desire for an additional hour; but it was his pal Claire Scott whose unrequited passion for a member of staff landed that oblivious teacher in hot water.

Mr Hopwood – played by the same actor (Brian Capron) who drove Gail Platt and family into the Manchester Ship Canal a couple of decades later on ‘Coronation Street’ – was unaware his doe-eyed pupil had taken her infatuation with him to another level by recounting her fantasies in the pages of her diary. When her mother broke the golden rule by dipping into it whilst cleaning Claire’s bedroom, she reported what she assumed to be evidence of a genuine affair to her husband, prompting an incensed Mr Scott to storm up to the school and grab Mr Hopwood by the shirt collars, accusing him of something that would now lead to instant dismissal on the pretext of guilty till proven innocent.

Poor, humiliated Claire confessed it was all in her head and that Mr Hopwood had never laid a finger on her; but in an age when ‘Jackie’ magazine was still turned to for advice as the only help-line for young teenage girls focusing their embryonic lust on the nearest grownup male figure outside of family, Claire Scott’s predicament was genuine. It had happened for real just ten years earlier, as sensationally exposed in typically crass fashion by the News of the World in an early example of Rupert Murdoch’s grudge match against the BBC. Claiming ‘Top of the Pops’ was a hotbed of vice and debauchery (always the paper’s favourite subjects), the revelation emerged of a teenage member of the dancing studio audience who had written in her diary of a sexual encounter with one of the show’s hosts.

The girl’s mother got her hands on the diary, took it as Gospel, approached the BBC to lodge a formal complaint (without success) and the private document of her daughter’s fantasies then mysteriously fell into the hands of the Digger, who demonstrated his trademark tact and sensitivity by publishing extracts from it. When the ‘confession’ appeared in the News of the World, his breaking of the sordid little story pushed the girl over the edge and she committed suicide; a police investigation at the time (1971) exonerated the BBC, TOTP and the unnamed ‘seducer’ – a sad chapter in the show’s history that said more about the dysfunctional nature of a mother/daughter relationship than any perceived lack of moral fibre on the part of a programme produced under characteristically stringent BBC rules and regulations.

Over forty years later, the long-forgotten mini-scandal was dredged up anew during Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Jimmy Savile’s alleged illicit activities on BBC premises; Dame Janet claims she couldn’t fathom why there was precious little evidence of this incident residing in the BBC archives, though a broadcasting institution that routinely wiped copies of its most popular shows in the 60s and 70s was hardly likely to retain every document relating to a brief episode in which every party involved had been cleared of any wrongdoing. Naturally, when a Fleet Street hungry for any Savile story – however dubious and fantastical – heard about this, their ears pricked up, and the wicked rapist of a 15-year-old girl simply had to be Sir Jimmy. Besides, the actual TOTP presenter named by the dead girl as her seducer, Tony Blackburn, couldn’t be ‘outed’ because he had taken the precaution of a super-injunction.

Now that has expired and Mr Blackburn has been named and shamed, how does his employer of many decades respond to the public revelation of something they were well aware of whilst continuing to pay his wages? It sacks him on the spot. Remember, Blackburn was exonerated in 1971 and once again when he was interviewed as part of Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry. So, that means he has twice been found not guilty of the accusation that has now cost him his job. He wasn’t even fired by the men in charge of the station he works for, Radio 2, but the actual Director General of the BBC himself, Tony Hall. The man whose voice opened Radio 1 in September 1967 is rightly furious and the statement he has issued to the press doesn’t see him mince his words. Legal action is threatened and it would seem he has a very strong case for wrongful dismissal.

Tony Blackburn was perhaps a tad too hasty to distance himself from Jimmy Savile when all that broke out at the end of 2012 and Paul Gambaccini was equally quick to point the finger at a dead man, regarding his reputation as a respected broadcaster and prominent media gay as a sure-fire safeguard against any accusations. He paid the price for his superiority complex and now one of the lowbrow broadcasters who personified the cheery cheese of Radio 1 when Gambaccini joined the station in 1973 has also been hung out to dry by a spineless, weak-kneed BBC as it bends over backwards to ensure its charter is renewed in the face of renewed hostility from a government on Murdoch’s payroll.

What this latest headline says about the BBC, the Metropolitan Police Force, the legal system, and the state of this country in 2016 seems pretty clear. There doesn’t seem much point in spelling it out.

© The Editor