So there I was at at 10am yesterday, poised over a radio set tuned to a station which, like the most exotic and flimsy-winged butterfly, was only going to be in existence for three days, and anxiously hoping for news about Simon Bates. Had he made it to his destination in the sponsored 172-mile bed-push? Or had the coal miners, the “lovely young girls” and the comedian Frank Carson, all of whom were doing the pushing, got fed up and shoved him into a ditch where he’d been dragged off by wolves, leaving only his nightcap?
Everything about this tiny moment in pop culture dates it. The coal miners (ask your dad). The description of the women. Carson, who stopped telling ’em the way he told them some time ago. Then there’s the bed-push. These days, to raise money for “charidee”, texting info for donations would probably suffice. And then there’s Bates. What a very conspicuous way to tour the highways. And with all those poor saps heaving and grunting he must have felt like a Roman emperor being transported to an orgy. He must, indeed, have been a Radio 1 DJ.
That’s Radio 1 when it was the “station of the nation” and almost half the country listened. No wonder these guys got ideas above their station, grew egos the size of Roadshow trucks, went half-demented with power-lust and stormed television in search of light-entertainment opportunities to better showcase their irrepressible personalities.
What a strange time that was. Stranger still to be a “pop-picker” again, listening to Bates and Tony Blackburn and Alan Freeman and Emperor Rosko and Ed Stewart on Radio 1 Vintage, broadcast over a long weekend to celebrate the network’s 50th anniversary. And this is the really strange bit: I didn’t shout at my transistor (are they still called that?) or hold it down in a bucket of water until the mournful Our Tune lament gurgled to a finish or Arnold woof-woofed as if from the bottom of a well.
I never actually did this back in the day but felt like it often. But I realised while tuned to the pop-up pop station that it was the desired response. I was young and didn’t know any better, only thought I did. I was experimenting with sarcasm and superior feeling and Gary Davies and his Bit in the Middle and virtually everything Peter Powell did in the name of jockery provided ready targets. This is a fuction of state broadcasters and it’s absolutely vital.
On the journey from boy to man you affect sophistication until the real thing hopefully comes along. The first time this laddie, trying to ape his father’s innate taste and discernment, ever shouted “You’re a buffoon!” across the kitchen it would have been in response to something I’d just heard on the 275/285 frequency.
This was followed by “You don’t even like music, do you?” Then “Are those little tics and trembles of false modesty natural or do you have to practice them and if so for how long?” Followed by “You don’t even like that fellow jock you’re calling ‘Mate’, do you?” Finally “Why are you making fun of that girl’s accent when she’s queued for four hours for the Roadshow so she can stand on the beach in the pouring rain and watch you spin records?”
Where possible – that is, where they weren’t dead or disgraced or both – the DJs were invited back to discuss their craft, their drivel. Blackburn even got to recreate the show with which he launched Radio 1, stopping short of the notorious moment when he blubbingly pined between song dedications for the wife who was breaking up with him, Tessa Wyatt. But the reminisces, rather predictably, were silly, sentimental and self-mythologising.
Blackburn bragged about touring with Diana Ross. Mike Read tried to out-brag him with his weekend wing-ding with Wham! (in truth not George Michael but the other one). Read boasted about hiring a submarine for some Roadshow malarkey. The chart was referred to as “the 40”. Bates interviewing Paula Abdul was remembered as one of the great interrogations of the age (what you haven’t seen the arthouse film Bates/Abdul?) Mark Goodier was introduced without irony as an “icon”.
And Radio 1, we were told, has been “at the forefront of every musical movement these past 50 years”, forgetting that some of its bomber-jacketed taste-makers initially hated punk-rock.
But I didn’t really mind any of this. It was nice to hear familiar voices again, even if some sounded like they were adjusting to unfamiliar teeth. It’s been very easy this half-century to poke fun at deluded DJs and Smashie & Nicey and Alan Partridge have done it splendidly, but the first boat-load of pirate jocks to arrive at the new pop network from the North Sea were true pioneers and, in their way, just as revolutionary as the punks.
Talking of revolutions (note seamless DJ-style link-cum-gag), some of the Radio 1 vintage choons were played on vinyl. “Do you know what a turntable is, Nick?” Blackburn asked current Breakfast Show incumbent Nick Grimshaw. Now, I’m not an expert on the network’s DJs anymore but would guess they tick the box marked “diversification”. I’m sure they’re slick but worry they’re too cool. Where are the nutters, the clowns, the “Feel the warmth of my sincerity” chumps?
Where’s the DJ, stuck on Roadshow duty in some dreich resort-town, surrounded by fans happy with their shout-outs and their sunstrips, who mutters to himself in the hotel bar at night: “I’m better than this. I’m going on TV. Fly my helicopter right through it”? That’s personality for you.
When I didn’t have any money to buy records I needed these guys and, I realise now, loved them more than I thought I did.