Them a call us Pirates

The new-look radio gives a new deal to musicians
by TONY BROWN (published 1967)

THE background to the formation of a new radio channel and the rescheduling of the existing channels is fairly well known. However, it is worthwhile running along the chain of events, if only to understand the moves that the BBC have made.

The Pirate radio stations enjoyed a great, if short-lived success. Their very success, indeed, hastened their doom – for the triumph of one station only brought a host of imitators. It also brought a certain amount of gangster and strong-arm activity – swashbuckling excitement for the casual observer, but ugly underneath.

The government denunciation of the Pirates, followed by action that made their survival extremely hazardous, if not practically impossible, has been strongly criticized – and not only in the form of emotional keep-radio-free pleas by deejays about to lose their livelihood. Ministries can so easily be made to appear humourless killjoys by political opponents.

Real risks

Yet anyone who knows anything at all about the grossly overcrowded air-waves will concede that the anarchistic invasion of the Pirates was an embarrassment to all those who had to keep to the rules – the signatories of the international radio wavelength agreements. None of the Pirates might have been proved to be a danger to shipping, international rescue operations and so on – so far; but a multiplicity of Pirate operations could only have increased the very real risks.

To ban the Pirates, politically speaking, was also fraught with danger. It is a mistake to think that they were only listened to by teen-agers with transistor radios. Britain has a large proportion of idle knob-spinners of all ages in search of radio fare that taxes neither the ear nor the intellect. This isn’t a sneer: the business man on his way home in a car after a hard day uses his car radio in that way; so does the intellectual. Not that either of them is likely to change political allegiance if frustrated in the search for light entertainment. However, housewives also have a vote, and housewives are avid listeners who generally speaking don’t care where the music comes from; teenagers soon qualify for the electoral register.

The success of the Pirates was interpreted as a partial failure on the part of the BBC – I think erroneously, but there it is If the Pirates had to go, the teenagers supposed to be their main fans had to be given consolation in the form of a special teenage-type radio service. Why not a special service for grandmas and grandads, you ask? Don’t be awkward. This happens to be the era of the teenager.

The BBC, in fact, has bent over backwards for several years pandering to one particular section of teenagers – also apparently in the belief that no one able to afford a television set would bother listening to radio very much. All very much open to argument.

Anyone who has spent any time abroad will know that the BBC is something that we have to be thankful for. The Corporation makes mistakes; sometimes does not act in the spirit of its charter, but it is still the BBC. Despite an inbuilt and perhaps inevitable conservatism, it is a monument of truth and sanity in a world that needs both. Where the BBC is inclined to go hay-wire, of course, is in its attempts to get with-it and modernise. Just when you think the Old Lady will never raise the hemline, she rushes down to the beach in a bikini.

Well, we love her just the same. And having said all that, let it be pointed out that although the new pop channel may not have been necessary (must we follow detergent precedents and have lighter than light music?), the reorganisation it has caused has given a chance to many young and able men at the BBC.

What the new set-up brings about, briefly, is Channel One – an all-out pop programme, plus Channel Two—the Light programme mixture as before (pop, jazz, light music as opposed to heavy or serious music, plus that popular music which, because of the misuse of the word popular, has to be redefined as, we suggest, standard album/LP music. Any other suggestions will be welcome.

The other two channels are virtually the Home and Third, retitled for uniformity Channel Three Channel Four.

Pre-recordings

Both Channel One and Two will be using a high proportion of pre-recorded music. Although very little has been said about it publicly, the BBC and executives of the Musicians’ Union have obviously got together to work out a sensible compromise on the knotty point of needle-time. There will be, we forecast, more needle-time but proportionally much more employment for live musicians. Which is only just, since the musician gets a flat fee for making a record and nothing at all for repeat performances.

We mentioned the bright young men of the BBC. Newly promoted to producer status are Ray Harvey, Bev Phillips, Ray Herbert, Aidan Day, Malcolm Brown and John Walters – all of whom have had valuable training as balance engineers. Quite as important, since these men will be in charge of musical productions, is the fact that all of them are musicians. Harvey plays alto and clarinet; Phillips performs on trombone, trumpet, violin and piano; Day plays bass guitar; Brown is a pianist; Walters is a trumpet player.

This is no accident: the BBC has recruited musicians and trained them to balance and produce musical programmes. Existing producers, several of whom have been given more responsible jobs in the reshuffle, are musicians. Paul Williams is a pianist with perfect pitch; so don’t ever argue with him if he suggests that the brass are a shade too ‘bright’. Bryant Marriott, erstwhile Jazz Club producer, is a drummer Bill Bebb plays guitar and bass. Roger Eames, who has been a producer of Swingalong and other programmes, will take over Jazz Club shortly and plans a change of format to get back to live jazz almost entirely. But he isn’t at this moment divulging his full plans. Roger played in the Nottingham University Jazz band on bass and has been known to startle session bassists by asking to have a go on their instruments. Roger also happens to be an arranger.

The long, mixed bag ‘popular’ shows are to continue – groups sandwiched between jazz outfits and string orchestras, with vocalists of all types thrown in for good measure. I regard this as logical as putting Maria Callas in with Acker Bilk and the Foden Works Band, but it can be reasoned that the BBC is helping to sell jazz and more sophisticated music to beat enthusiasts – and at the same time liberalising those who regard all beat music as an excrescence.

So far as the producers are concerned, there is a great call for specialisation. In the old days, a man might have had to handle a comedy show, a brass band recital and a dance band broadcast. Now the work is divided and horses (pardon the metaphor) are selected for courses. From a musician’s point of view, the prospects are bright, regardless of all the criticism that can be made. Not long ago a jazz band might have got one Jazz Club a year; now it stands a chance of being featured in several different programmes. A dance band would be fobbed off, if it were lucky, with a Music While You Work once in a blue moon; today the field is open.

Again, one of the biggest beefs of bandleaders over the years has been the panel, if panel it was, that sat in judgement of auditions. We recall the dance band that was refused a broadcast on the grounds that it was “too rhythmic”. A panel composed of this new breed of producers isn’t likely to pronounce judgements of that quality.

It is to be hoped that, to evoke the spirit of the BBC charter, the men in control are going to give a fair crack of the whip to those bands located in the Provinces. Should not the fine band of Don Smith be heard more often, even if that poses technical problems? The NDO has, despite its lack of a personalised name, made a fine reputation, but the Provinces boast many good bands that deserve the encouragement of regional broadcasts.

We all wish the BBC the best of luck in the new venture and positively promise the full co-operation of all musicians, once the favoured-few tendencies have been entirely’ eradicated and musicians see that they and the Corporation are allies in the struggle to promote good music . . . of all kinds.

pirate-radio-1967

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