Radio’s tidal waves 

3 October 2007

It is, of course, everyone’s prerogative to believe that the moment when they first fell in love with pop music was The Turning Point, the moment when a profound change occurred both within pop itself and within its relations with the wider world. I would not seek to deny anyone’s right to feel that way about Their Moment, but I would equally assert that, viewed objectively, some moments are more important than others. My mother, for example, has a strange – and, I would say, uncharacteristic – habit of underestimating the importance of her moment, claiming that the late 1950s were merely part of a continuum with the pre-WW2 embrace of American music in Britain, forgetting (in a very British compartmentalist way) the significance of Britain’s humiliation at Suez, the retreat from empire and the birth of consumerism.

My moment was in 1990. Of course, both music and radio had been a part of my life beforehand, even before my memories start to fade in: my parents tell me that, at the age of one, I was instantly familiar with the inter-war tune “Breakaway” (theme to the Saturday morning Radio 4 travel series of that name) and Van McCoy’s “The Shuffle” (theme to ‘Sport on 4’, another Saturday morning Radio 4 series).

Radio 4 – then still very largely the Old Tory enclave that inverted snobs and ultra-Blairites will wrongly claim (for their own purposes of appearing as rebels when in fact they’re now the establishment) that it still is today – was always there, as was Radio 2: my mum listening to the music, my dad to the sport, at a time when football had not gained absolute media saturation (indeed, it was seen as desperately old-fashioned in the midst of the 1980s) so that, while it was possible for sport to be largely contained within what were effectively medium wave optouts on Saturday afternoons, Sunday afternoons but only in summer and the occasional midweek commentary (quite unthinkable today) there was if anything a much fairer balance of sports within that time.

But without any older brothers or sisters, Radio 1 had never been there, and Radios 2 and 4 weren’t mine. They weren’t something I could relate to entirely for myself at a time when, finding the world around me virtually incomprehensible, I desperately needed something. With Radio 1 – with pop – I found it.

And I found it at the moment when pop’s final triumph really began to become utterly embedded, for good or ill. Indeed, much 1990-ish pop is full of a certain discernible sense of triumph, quite understandable because the West’s victory in the Cold War – and, it was widely felt at the time and would remain a believable illusion until 11th September 2001, over any ideologically anti-pop forces anywhere in the world – was as much pop’s victory as anything else, certainly far more a victory for pop than for the forms of Western high culture which in the later years of the Cold War had in fact been protected in Eastern Europe far more than in the Anglo-Saxon world. Meanwhile, in Britain the 1990 Broadcasting Act was in the process of enshrining pop culture as the new establishment; pop as the officially-approved state culture, destroying the remnants of Reithian disapproval of it.

In the 1980s, there had still been something of a distance between pop’s homeland and the experience of consuming it on these shores. It wasn’t on the scale of humiliated post-imperial, pre-offshore-radio Britain’s distance from JFK’s (and Del Shannon’s, and and and…) New Frontiers, I’ll grant you, but it was still there. In In 1985 Music Box, the first British-based imitator of MTV reached five million households in mainland Europe, so often seen by romantics of both Left and Right as an escape option from pop-cultural dominance, but only 50,000 in its home country (although it would fire the starting gun on mass-audience 24-hour TV in Britain when it was briefly shown overnight by Yorkshire Television in 1986). Meanwhile, in early 1986, Radio Times printed a letter about Radio 1 which referred to “the highly percussive music which pervades recent charts” – as distanced and removed a description of pop as I have seen even in similar letters from the 1950s.

As a result of Britain’s insistence – unlike almost every other country – of reserving much of the FM band available on domestic radios for the police and emergency services, the medium’s evolution had been held back in the 1980s, with the number of stations available well below that of most other Western countries and Radio 1, unlike its equivalents on the continent, confined for most of the time to medium wave, utterly unable to do justice to the sound that pop had adopted by the middle of the decade and unreliable after dark. Needletime regulations had remained in force until 1988 – typically, it was Stock Aitken Waterman who initially bypassed them, and they rapidly collapsed as others followed suit – preventing 24-hour (they would never have been called “24/7” on these shores back then) wall-to-wall Top 40 stations.

I had been part of the last generation of British children to regularly watch programmes imported from mainland Europe onto British children’s TV, thus providing an alternative vision to pop absolutism. After I’d grown out of such things – not long after I fell in love with pop – any representation of our fellow Europeans (unless of course they adopted Anglo-American pop-cultural norms) on British children’s TV rapidly died out.

But still the final push was only just beginning, and traces of the thrill of the unknown still remained. Pop was not a key part of what John Major, as he loyally tagged along behind the elder (and slightly wiser) Bush, was fighting to make Kuwait safe for in the way it would so obviously be a key part of what Tony Blair would be fighting to make Iraq safe for in 2003. It was still alien to my parents, in their late thirties by the time of my birth, in a way that could rarely if ever be fully replicated now (even if modern-day parents don’t like what’s being played on Radio 1 in 2007, they’re much more likely to understand why people would).

And it followed me around, always there, the thrill of new territory and, in terms of the working of the charts, endless fascination for an obsessively organised mind. Hearing KLF singles for the first time, captured by their plotting from within, wondering what they’d do next. Desperately wondering who’d be number one this week, not being able to stand the tension as it built towards 7.00 pm every Sunday. A sound, an ethos, held to my heart, shared with millions but still essentially private, providing my only engagement with a world I could not understand and that could not understand me.

Of course, in retrospect it was the end of a collapsing world, a time of ‘limited capitalism’, monopoly capitalism, restrictions that were visibly and audibly crumbling. The scope of the whole thing now seems at once both ridiculously broad and absurdly narrow, in that sounds and styles that were shaping the lives of an entire generation – those a few years older than broad-based pop consumers such as myself – were simply not being represented. Radio 1, after all, taught me as much about how pop, as measured by the singles chart, had developed through the previous two decades after my parents had lost interest – mainly through Alan Freeman’s glorious Sunday lunchtime cavalcade – as it did about the pop of that moment.

In retrospect, the turning point was John Birt’s inevitable ascension to the post of BBC Director General in 1993, because – as the first DG young enough to have been a teenager in the modern sense – he could see that a generation was being neglected in a way disturbingly similar to how his own, in that post-empire, pre-pirate interregnum, had been. In 1991 the traditionally respectable, ultimately powerless placeholder Michael Checkland had effectively ignored a plan presented to him for the future of Radio 1, which claimed that it was “too agreeable to the over-30s” who “ought to hate it”, and cited Freeman, Bob Harris, Simon Bates and Dave Lee Travis in particular as presenters who needed to be removed. But then he was of the last pre-rock’n’roll generation, he couldn’t empathise, couldn’t understand. Birt could, and he knew that something had to be done, fast.

The replacement of veteran controller Johnny Beerling with Matthew Bannister, and the concurrent departure of Simon Bates – a former announcer and newsreader on Radios 2 and 4 who always seemed to hold pop in thinly-veiled contempt, to see himself as inherently ‘above’ it, to only really regard it as valid when it went for the Big Gesture (as with Band Aid, Live Aid and their imitators) – are in retrospect key moments in the collapse of all barriers to pop in the rest of British society, its rise from a still muttered-against backdrop to the absolute, unquestionable centre. Looking back, they seem to cross-fertilise with the almost overnight emergence of Tony Blair the following year, and indeed the overhaul of the network’s music policy did much to facilitate the way what had been indie would mutate into Britpop, right there on the front of the redtops and the leader pages of the broadsheets, a fundamental change in dynamics after which nothing on any side could ever be the same, or even pretend to be.

But for much of 1993-95 my inability to make sense of the world pushed me towards an intense young fogeyism (I would take the Mail and Telegraph almost as gospel in a way that would soon make me deeply, deeply embarrassed, though I still agree at least with what my favourite columnist of the time, Auberon Waugh, would say about the European issue) and this led me, naturally enough, back to Radio 2. No, I can’t quite believe it either. But it fitted my self-image, my determination to be as hermetic, as discovered-memory distanced, as possible.

The very fact that a national station of the kind Radio 2 then was could even have existed as late as the mid-1990s now seems almost incomprehensible, practically ‘beyond belief’ in the truest sense. Like the existence of John Major’s collapsing, self-destructive government with which it had so much in common, or the way a headmistress of Harrogate Ladies’ College could even as late as that be forced out for saying “Hi”, being scruffy and non-attentive in chapel, being assertive and feminist (I swear I am not making this up – although the chairman of governors, who one suspects had led the campaign to undermine her, also fell when she did), it seems to belong to another epoch, utterly out of reach and ‘untouchable’, not any kind of ‘recent past’. It is horrible to have to concede that such a person had a point, but Jonathan Miller (not that one, but the Sunday Times columnist and fanatical anti-licence-fee campaigner) was not far wrong when in early 1995 he described Radio 2’s presence as almost surreal, already part of another universe. In a country which still had a government which clearly knew nothing about pop culture, which included people who spoke like Patrick Mayhew – in short, a country which had still not yet caught up with what it had set in motion in the 1980s, where the Long March of Thatcherism still fell short of the final barriers – it could still exist, lost in a private world which could have been invented for ostentatiously timelocked romantics such as me, the difference of course being that most of their dwindling number were old enough to be my grandparents. Not for nothing did even I think it made no impact, inspired no wider public awareness of its continued availability.

One of my favourite programmes on the network was admittedly that of the eternally underrated and underused Martin Kelner, which pointed the way to the station’s future in terms of music policy (a future in which he himself would unfortunately take no part), but being in that place at that time it was bound to be ignored by most floating listeners who might possibly have liked it.

And of course the result of controller Frances Line’s blunt refusal to take up where Radio 1 had left off was utter disaster for BBC Radio in ratings terms: for the first time, commercial radio gained an overall ratings lead, and an even greater lead among those under 45, as a vast audience was simply served nowhere else.

But young listeners now arguably had something more purely and unashamedly for them than the BBC had offered before, and in the autumn of 1995 – as I started to resemble someone of my own age again – I steadily drifted back to Radio 1.

Now pop – all its many forms in the slipstream of Britpop, in the brief moment before all its promises crumbled into the sham consensus of Noelrock – was the absolute centre of my life. My academic career – such as it had ever been – was crumbling, all my chances dissipating, my emotional state steadily worsening, but I still had pop. More than ever, I had nothing else. And now Radio 1 was always on, even when it wasn’t supposed to be. Bannister’s reforms had been proven for what they were – the only way to keep the station in the public sector, and a fundamental change without which the entire pop landscape would have looked very, very different.

Mark Radcliffe before I faced another day desperately trying to pretend that I was at school, John Peel in his latest weekend graveyard but always there for the curious, Mark Goodier somehow getting me through homework (only called that out of form: almost all my academic work was at home) block, even Chris Evans – for all his irritation and ego – as I feared what would lie ahead that day. Wendy Lloyd or Claire Sturgess as I struggled to get myself to sleep, knowing that – whatever life might turn out to be, or not – there must be more to it than this.

As the 1990s gathered force and raced to their end, with a weird combination of calm and euphoria, Radio 1 was still there, steadily moving on (as it must always do) and still introducing me to music I wouldn’t otherwise have known, while Radio 2 reinvented itself, thus allowing the BBC to retake the lead in the audience stakes and working its way back into my life. The importance of radio was already declining by the time I gained home internet access at the end of 1998, and declined still further afterwards as the net became more and more the place where I would discover music, but it was still there, firmly in the background as I floated through a time which now appears like a dream, a reverie that bears no relation to anything before or (still less) anything after. The moment I first arrived in a place I’d dreamed of for twelve years was Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” on someone else’s car radio during the (by then huge) Chris Moyles show. I remember these things.

And there was still time for the last great moment: Westwood (let’s leave out the “Tim”: everyone else does) circa 2003. We all know the context, we all know (if we are honest) that some things are far more interesting, far more important, than they’d otherwise be, simply because of their backstory. And never has that applied to anyone more than this self-recreation, this ultimate symbol of precisely what has replaced the England of romantic Tory dreams.

And there he was, reaching new levels of hysteria, going beyond the reinvention of the self, even, into the eclipse of the self. Every corpse in East Anglia exploding from the ground, and me losing myself, surrendered to hysteria bordering on psychosis. I saw them. Blood running down their faces. I saw them.

Everything fitted so well: I would hear him the same day an Ipswich-raised friend had mentioned that an old countryman of his acquaintance had died in 1975, the very year Westwood’s father had had the London appointment that would remake his son’s life. There were months of this, no longer a human, no longer in any kind of control. It was terrifying. But, for a multiplicity of reasons, it had to happen.

Of course, by its very nature, it couldn’t last, and over the last few years neither Radio 1 nor Radio 2 have been a particularly important part of my life. I’ve preferred to make my own world, preferred to hide from the false consensus of these late days. Save us from the grotesque ‘anti-humanism’ of Chris Moyles and his litany of life-wasting, Europe-hating ultra-hedonism, his unending boozing while every freedom he takes for granted burns – and save us also from those who think all his critics are stereotypical Daily Telegraph / old-school Radio 4 fogeys.

If truth be told, much – though certainly not all – of what we call popular music has been tainted for me since the guns started firing on 20th March 2003, since we entered into a war that has been so blatantly fought in the name of rock’n’roll (I can picture Blair looking at his Free and Led Zeppelin CDs and saying to himself, as Captain Mainwaring said of Godfrey’s cottage, that “this is what we’re fighting for”). I no longer have much inclination to listen to what is basically, for all the attempts to dress it up otherwise, the cultural wing of a geopolitical system which is now showing all the hallmarks of incipient fascism.

It is not so much that neither Radio 1 nor Radio 2 give much airtime to what little music is being made which attempts to reinvent pop as Human League, Associates et al did in response to the Reagan insurgency, it is more that the British no longer seem to have it in them to remake pop in such a way, at least in a way that the mass will understand. Indeed, they’d probably already lost it by the time of Reagan’s second election.

But, for all that, I will defend the stations’ existence with my life, if only because – as a believer in the European social model – I want the BBC to have as wide a role as possible and I don’t want it to be subjected to what could best be described as PBS/NPR-ization (spelling deliberate). Despite continual attempts to destroy it (have you seen the Daily Mail’s coverage of the faked competitions “scandal”? Petty and spiteful are not the words), the BBC has been far, far more successful, especially in the field of radio, at avoiding such a process than most people – including many within the BBC itself – 15 or 20 years ago would ever have believed it would (the Peacock Report called for both Radio 1 and Radio 2 to be privatised as long ago as 1986).

There was also a nasty racist subtext to some of the attacks on Radio 1 which would appear in the Mail during the mid-1990s, before my parents realised what an odious, sensationalist thing it is: week after week, kneejerk hacks would call for the station to be privatised, clearly because they knew that the music Westwood and his ilk played would lose virtually all its mass media exposure, replaced by yet more airtime for whatever were the ten-years-ago equivalents of James Blunt (the name of the Lighthouse Family horrifically springs to mind).

Doubtless the Mail has now transferred its ire to DAB, which I assume (in blissful ignorance) that it regularly denounces as a “waste of our money”, never openly stating – but clearly implying to those not tranquilised by daily exposure to its contents – that it is referring to 1Xtra and the Asian Network rather than, say, BBC7. It may well be all too typical that the most fervently anti-1Xtra person I ever met on Usenet (remember that?) informed us that we should not refer to Holocaust deniers as Holocaust deniers, because it is apparently “somewhat abusive”.

I have little use for either Radio 1 or Radio 2 at present. I am out of Radio 1’s target audience, after all, and find the certain consensual post-Blairite smugness in much of Radio 2’s output horrendously offputting. But I regard the popularity of both stations against the vastly inferior output of commercial radio as something to be proud of. And Radio 1 is doing particularly well considering that its target audience has been the quickest to embrace new forms of media in recent years. I will defend their continued existence with a rare passion. You only need to hear commercial radio to understand why. And it is particularly important that Radio 1 continues to serve a young audience at a time when most commercial stations, especially outside the major urban centres, have been pushed towards an older audience by the same economic forces that have financially disenfranchised the young and put ever more of the wealth in the hands of the middle-aged.

Those young people are starting their journey now, and for them it will mean … something. Not quite the same. Maybe not quite so special. But, for them, something as important as anything in any previous generation. Who are we to take it from them?

This tidal wave will change its form so much that we may not recognise it. But the thrill will always be there.

“Radio forecast intermittent storms

Tidal waves that change their forms…”

– Robyn Hitchcock, “Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)”, 1993

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error


Robin Carmody Contact More by me

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Thursday 11 July 2024