All Systems Freeman – 1 

31 December 2006


Alan Freeman on the air (BBC, 1968)

The death of Alan Freeman, at an amazing 79 years (think of that – Alan Freeman 79: it just doesn’t compute) has not only lost us a legendary figure from British radio and the music scene, but has robbed baby boomers of a figure of towering iconic status. For those of us now on the wrong side of 50, Alan Freeman was above anything else just ‘always there’. As steady a beacon for our ‘swinging sixties’ roll call as Harold Wilson, JFK or The Avengers.

The most important piece of context to the career of this amazing conduit of sixties music culture is that when he really hit his stride in the early sixties, even the term ‘deejay’ was new and there were few on-air in this country. The Light Programme had personalities, celebrities and duty announcers. Radio Luxembourg had its ‘resident announcers’ and ‘station hosts’, television had compères, but the American term ‘disc jockey’ was not yet widely used in the UK and certainly not familiar to our parents. It was reserved for a very small and exclusive group of men – they were all men – and Alan Freeman was the first to hit the BBC with a unique selling proposition. He was the tutor to your new musical hobby, the one who could ‘let you in’ to that exclusive new club of switched-on, tuned-in, turned-on people.

Almost five years before Mary Quant or Carnaby Street became symbols of a new style generation, Alan Freeman was key if you wanted to ‘get inside’ the world of popular music. Others soon joined him and the contributions of Brian Matthew, Pete Murray, Jimmy Savile and even a youthful David Jacobs can never be overlooked – but Freeman was the first to capture a corner of British radio especially for his listeners and create a public, yet personal, space for a younger generation to call their own.

It felt almost like a conspiracy with the listeners. It is an irony that a new cultural wave that was soon to give an iconic power to the offshore radio stations after 1964 actually started on the BBC, for just an hour a week, from 1961.

To understand the astonishing value of what Freeman was achieving at the time, some background is necessary. The UK in the early sixties was a world without the degree of consumer choice we now take for granted, but with steadily rising disposable incomes for many. It was a country on the verge of a new cultural paradigm. For the first time, a teenage generation had modest but real spending power of its own.

The one obstruction to this cultural tidal wave was the restricted number of channels that existed for the music scene to promote itself. With no home-based commercial radio, the main opportunities to listen to the new beat were limited. The BBC had not yet woken up to the needs of the young radio listener, and such radio record programmes as did exist were further restricted by the Musician’s Union ‘Needle Time’ Agreement that limited the number of records played each day to ensure the inclusion of live music by orchestras, providing instrumental cover versions of contemporary hits. This was a phenomenon held in utter contempt by many younger listeners.

At one time the Light Programme was playing barely an hour a week of newly-pressed vinyl releases. The one outlet that could be relied upon for a regular supply of the latest hit records was the English service of Radio Luxembourg. That was, however, limited to transmission of only eight hours a day from 6pm each evening. The whole broadcast music scene seemed restricted. In a country not long out of wartime privation, it was an irony that the broadcasting of pop records also seemed to be ‘on the ration’.

Into this scene, from Melbourne Australia, came the young Alan Freeman, fresh from the remarkably upbeat Aussie radio stations of the time. Via a summer relief job at Radio Luxembourg in 1957, he migrated to the BBC Light Programme in 1960 and secured a short stint on the legendary and long running Housewives’ Choice – acme of record request programmes.

Freeman was soon spotted by other producers, and a year later was given his own feature, Pick of the Pops. This initially appeared as a fixed spot within another programme. Concentrating on the hit parade and making a feature of the movements up and down the ‘chart’ each week, the slot was an instant hit with listeners. It soon secured an hour of its own, every Sunday afternoon on the Light Programme. The show ran for many years and was eventually doubled in length.

It was here that the ‘conspiracy with the young’ really took root. The hour-long weekly show quickly became central to the lives of both followers and aspiring followers of popular music, and record producers used every trick in the book (short of actual bribery) to get their new releases onto the show.

The programme was given its own internal mystique by the break-up of the hour into four time ‘units’. ‘Unit One’, the new releases of the week, headed off the programme, while ‘Unit Two’ looked at the lower reaches of the ‘hit parade’ (a term then more common than ‘the charts’). ‘Unit Three’ was a short LP spot and ‘Unit Four’, most popular with the listeners, covered the second half-hour of the show with the ‘Top Ten’, played in ascending order from number ten up to a climactic end-of-show play for the Number One of the week. A countdown of the Top Twenty in cod dramatic tone was then given by Freeman over an instrumental music bed – At the Sign of the Swinging Cymbal – as a closing signature tune.

This type of formatting of a chart show might seem obvious today, but at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary. It was not only a dynamic new style in radio terms but it served the audience as a weekly mantra that the pop-starved younger listener could call their own. The countdown was sensational in presentation terms too. It was something music producers had never attempted before on the BBC, where ‘talking over music’ had hitherto been considered vulgar and inelegant. It appealed to youth in a way that is hard to imagine today.

For many it was a revelation that music could be presented with such élan and verve. Freeman had a microphone style which though it might seem slightly cliché-ridden today, at the time was fresh, new and exciting. Catch phrases and a special regular ‘patter’ abounded. Listeners came to identify with the presenter as a personal friend – almost for the first time in BBC radio. The programme became quite central to many young people’s lives, and for adolescents learning about the popular music scene, it quickly became compulsory. In a world where everything was shut on Sundays, Pick of the Pops became highlight of the day for many.

Pick of the Pops was not the first radio show based on the weekly changes in the charts. Radio Luxembourg had for some time promoted the hit parade as backdrop and target for new releases, but the scope for a dramatic presentation of the numbering system in countdown form had been underplayed by Luxembourg, and Alan Freeman at the BBC was the first presenter to emphasise the notion of a competitive element within the hit parade. Previously it had been seen merely been a weekly sales chart. After this new treatment it was promoted on-air as a titanic struggle between individual releases, almost as if it were a commentary on a competitive sport.

Pick of the Pops was the first music show where the format created a ritual appealing to the buyers of the records. It caused them to feel part of a record-buying community and had a profound effect on the British record industry and the contemporary music scene. Alan Freeman and his producers were personally responsible for a cultural earthquake of unprecedented proportions in music broadcasting.

Next month, Kif looks at Alan Freeman’s ongoing sixties work for Radio Luxembourg, which ran side by side with his BBC work for a decade, and recalls Alan’s break into TV with Top of the Pops in 1964.

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