We Want The Airwaves (Pirate Radio)

Image result for radio london 1966I was only 11 years old when radio stations, operating from ships outside of British territorial waters, began broadcasting non-stop Pop. In 1964 I was already a little obsessed by music, more than just a Beatlemaniac, I found the rush of creativity from young British musicians to be the most exciting Art around. My parents had kindly provided a spanking new Dansette record player for the previous Xmas (to be “shared” with my younger sister. Like that was going to happen !) but my stack of 7″ 45s was small & Auntie BBC, neglectful of a new audience, shackled by a meagre ration of “needle time”, really didn’t get what was going on. Pirate Radio (could they have come up with a cooler name ?) were playing all the hits & more to an audience of 15 million but not in our house. “That’s right kids, don’t touch that dial” was was a rule set by the old folks.

 

Image result for transistor radio 1960sI did get my own portable, transistor radio, a hand-me-down from someone in my large extended family. It was more formal Fifties model than Swinging Sixties & boy, I wish I had it now. Everybody thought that I got a lot of homework from school but I was in my bedroom, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, listening, more often than not, to Radio London,  “Big L”.Unfortunately the government were having none of this fun & the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act blew the boats out of the water in August 1967. My best friend & I determined to catch as much as we could in that final month. John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show, the only place to hear the new underground sounds, started at midnight. I listened quietly, the radio under the bed sheets, my younger brother asleep across the room, trying to stay awake for as long as possible. Some nights I managed a whole 15 minutes ! On August 14th, after playing “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, a track you would never hear on the BBC, Big L stopped broadcasting. The #1 on their final Fab 40 was “Heroes & Villains”. We knew who was what.

 

 

It’s tough to select one tune from that pirate period so I’ve gone for something released at the end of 1967. On “The Who Sell Out” the group wanted to make aural Pop Art, fresh, fast, flashy, & fun. They chose to link the songs with Radio London’s jingles, recorded by the PAMS company in Dallas (I’m not sure if they obtained permission) & their own commercials. The concept worked well, “…Sell Out” is my favourite Who LP & just the best way to remember my station of choice from back then. All together now… “What’s for tea Mum ?”.

 

So it was “wonderful” Radio 1, staffed by many former freebooters, its mid-morning/early afternoon shows shared with the less wonderful Radio 2, which the BBC transmitted to an audience with little other choice. Caroline persevered with less resources & an air of resignation, supplies coming from Holland. Radio Luxembourg, around since the 1930s, music-based from 1960, was hardly hip to the trip & never really had been. It was 1973 before the government allowed a network of independent local commercial stations to challenge the BBC’s monopoly. There were still good shows being aired. John Peel found his corner at the BBC, playing an intoxicating mix of the wild & wonderful for over 35 years. The indies often scheduled an evening of off-playlist music while, in London, Capital’s Roger Scott hosted Cruising, a Friday rush hour of energetic American graffiti. The forced cheeriness of the daytime output, with presenters who you suspected didn’t really like music, grated very quickly. We all knew that “the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools trying to anaesthetise the way that you feel”.

 

 

PictureAfter I moved to that London I was sure that I would find something interesting on the outer edges of the dial. Some communities did have their own set ups & the change of scenery was refreshing. In 1981 we found somewhere that seemed like just the place to hang out. Initially Dread Broadcasting Corporation only broadcast for a few hours a week from founder Lepke’s Neasden flat. They played the Roots Reggae you wanted to hear & the sound system operators knew how to present it. By 1983 people knew about it & it was a 12 hours a day, 7 days a week operation. The late, live mixes were essential, there were Funk & Soul, Jazz & Soca shows too. DBC really was an upful, vibrant thing, community radio that should have been encouraged but illegal & hounded off the air by the end of 1984. Their big tent at the Glastonbury Festival was my late night venue of choice in the early 1980s. Dancing until the bag of goodies ran out or I fell over, whichever came first.

 

Image result for dread broadcasting corporationReggae stations did reappear but Lovers Rock was carrying the swing, a little too sweet for my taste. It was the new Soul stations. Kiss & Horizon, which caught our ears in the mid-80s. Hip Hop & Electro were bubbling up & these fresh new sounds were what we listened to & bought back then. We, of course, would tape our favourites & I think the DJ at the club in Deptford we frequented lived next door because he would play all our new hit picks at the weekend ! Both stations were very popular & many smaller stations sprung up. The authorities encouraged them to give it up with the offer of a fair hearing at a licensing committee. Kiss FM returned as a legit operation but maybe the era of the celebrity DJ, branding at the expense of the music, didn’t help. Maybe it was just that being legal was not as much fun. Anyway, we were waiting for a pirate TV station, operating from a car driven around the Crystal Palace transmitter. We heard the rumours but we never found it !

 

 

It was later that we had a pirate station of our own operating from our South London flat. On Friday nights a bunch of young anarchists from Camden would call around, the more intrepid of them would take the transmitter to the roof along with a pre-recorded cassette, 90 minutes of subversion. They had to stay up there to swap the tape around half way through. The others sat quietly in our living room, accepting our hospitality of tea & biscuits all round. They were just kids & the most polite anarchists you could wish to meet.

 

One night we had places to go, people to see & left them to their business of smashing the state. On our return in the early hours the gang were still around. The running-dog lackey of a caretaker had put the police on to the renegades. One of their crew had hidden & was now locked on the roof of the 12 storey tower block. We kicked a door in, that either hadn’t occurred to them or was considered to be too drastic & rescued the frozen fugitive with ice forming in his dreadlocks, taking him back to base for more warming beverages & baked refreshments. That was the end of Radio Free Camden. The guy’s name was Fiddler…”Fiddler on the Roof”, you could not make this stuff up, so I’m not.

 

 

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Here Comes The Knight (Rod & Bob)

This week a couple of musical stalwarts were honoured when Bob Dylan (75) received the Nobel Prize in (not “for”…in) Literature & Rod Stewart (71) picked up his knighthood, adding to the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (sheesh !) he already had. Sir Rod loves all that guff, has done since he left Faces & trotted off to La-La Land with Britt Ekland. Our new Laureate has remained admirably silent while the world’s journalists, some unable to name more than 3 of his songs, expound on whether he “deserves” his accolade. I’m not going to get into the whys & the wherefores of my generation (hoped we died before we got old ?) turning into our parents because that leads to shit that’s serious & seriously depressing. I will though invoke that adage of Groucho Marx, the funniest man of the twentieth century, “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”. A shout out too to Jean-Paul Sartre who declined his Nobel offer because “a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honourable form”.

 

 

Image result for bob dylan francoise hardyI got lucky & got in early with Bob Dylan. The kid I sat next to at school was learning to play guitar (he became one of the UK’s most outstanding Folk artists) & he had the eponymous 1962 debut LP. The Beatles introduced me to Buddy Holly, Muddy Waters & Chuck Berry came through the Stones & this was my entry into Country Blues. He only wrote 2 songs on that first record, there are plenty of “trad, arranged by” & tunes credited to Jesse Fuller, Bukka White & Blind Lemon Jefferson. “Freewheelin'” was packed with originals. Not just instant folk standards like “Blowing in the Wind” & “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” but really hard ones like “Masters of War” & “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” which were a different cup of meat. There was more going on here than “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. In fact our hip young English teacher played us “Oxford Town”, the song inspired by events at the University of Mississippi on the enrolment of James Meredith, its first black student, to kickstart a discussion on civil rights in the US.

 

I heard the influence this new lyrical sensibility had on the Beat merchants, in their own compositions & the covers of Dylan’s. I could also hear that, before Woody Guthrie & the Alan Lomax field recordings, Bob was listening to the same Rock & Roll & R&B so close to the hearts of my musical heroes. It weren’t no thing at all for us when Dylan “went electric”. Something was happening, we knew what it was & so did he, while the Folk purists fumed we welcomed him over to our side of the tracks. He was really good at the new music. His rocking Folk-Blues, enhanced by Al Kooper’s distinctive organ sound, gave an epic quality to his intricate poetry. The 3 LPs “Bringing It All Back Home”, “Highway 61 Revisited” & “Blonde On Blonde” were a major contribution to popular music’s increasingly serious treatment. He was indeed very popular, the first “Greatest Hits” collection being released in 1967.

 

Image result for bob dylan nashvilleLife as an international pop star was bad craziness & a motorcycle accident allowed him to step away from the rigmarole of being regarded as a spokesman for his generation. His return to recording found Bob to be more lyrically contemplative, musically less strident. The classic songs continued, his basement demos provided material for Julie Driscoll (“This Wheel’s on Fire”), Manfred Mann (“The Mighty Quinn”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Going Nowhere”) & others. Dylanology, a bookcase full of, well…books, forensically pored over his intricate poetry looking for clues that may or may not be there. “John Wesley Harding” (1967), which included “All Along the Watchtower”, featured “The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest”, with the moral “that one should never be where one does not belong”. Plenty of people wanted Dylan to be plenty of things but when he came back he did what he liked, liked what he did & really didn’t care what was written & said about him. Of course there were still great songs to come, “Simple Twist of Fate”, “Hurricane”, “Sara”, it’s a very long list.

 

 

Image result for rod stewart 70sIn the 1960s Sir Rod found himself Rock & Roll bands that needed a helping hand from a raspy Blues shouter, first with Steampacket, a revue of many talents, then with guitarist Jeff Beck’s group who made a bigger impression in the US than here. His standing gained him a solo recording contract & the greater freedom provided showed that there was possibly more to Rod the Mod than previously suspected. Rod had been a soulboy & the influence of Sam Cooke added a warmth to his vocals. He had been a teenage beatnik, busking around Europe until he was busted for vagrancy & deported from Spain in 1963. The addition of these Folk roots to the mix made for a very attractive, potent brew. A combination of Rod’s own songs with astute & appropriate cover versions helped too.Two LPs, perhaps regarded in the UK as moonlighting from his day job as lead singer of Faces, set the scene before “Every Picture Tells A Story” took over the world & Rod became a very big deal.

 

 

Image result for rod stewart 70s“Every Picture…” is an almost perfect record, self-produced, assistance from Ron Wood, drums by Micky Waller. On all 5 of his first LPs there’s a song he got from Bob Dylan (I’m including “Man of Constant Sorrow” here). These were selections by a fan, no obvious choices. “Only A Hobo”, a song with a tender social conscience, was an outtake from “The Times They Are a-Changin'” sessions in 1963. “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, the only Dylan composition to be recorded by Elvis Presley, had been taken up by many on the Folk scene while the original remained unreleased. “Mama You Been on My Mind” was another tune that Bob recorded, discarded & passed on to other artists. Dylan’s songs have been covered by so many others, everyone has a different list of favourites which all include Jimi Hendrix. Sir Rod, particularly with “Tomorrow…” has made a notable contribution to a large body of work.

By 1975 he had signed with Warner Brothers & was an ex-Face. The laddish flash seemed more based on conspicuous consumption, less grounded in his North London roots, the music less individual. “Atlantic Crossing” was his 4th #1 album in the UK but I wasn’t listening too closely. It was the first one not to include a Dylan song…just saying.

 

 

Both of them are still going, Bob on his endless tour, Sir Rod with his stream of covers. Bob released an album of cover versions (taking a pop at Rod’s) while they have both recorded Xmas collections. In 1988 Sir Rod wrote a song “Forever Young” & it was pointed out that it shared more than a title with Dylan’s song from “Planet Waves” (1974). He ran it by the future Nobel winner & it became the only song where the two share composing credits. We’ll go for the original here because it’s another one for the ages from a master songwriter.

 

Image result for bob dylan nobelI knew people who thought that modern music was Bob Dylan then everybody else below. I remember the excitement when someone walked into the house with “George Jackson” (1971), a return to the protest form. There may have been 136 or 142 protest singers (Ha !) but he was the one that mattered. The last of his records to make an impression round here was “Love & Theft” (2001), that’s a good set. Dylan is the greatest songwriter of his generation. Back then he needed no deification & now no Nobel recognition to change that. He’s written 136 or 142 great songs.

 

“Well, I set my monkey on the log & ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head & he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey, very funky”

“I’m just average, common too I’m just like him, the same as you                                                  I’m everybody’s brother and son I ain’t different from anyone                                                      It ain’t no use a-talking to me It’s just the same as talking to you,”

Verses from the proto-rap “I Shall Be Free #10” on “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (1964) a record I could only afford by sneaking it into the 50p (60 cents) bin at the local market.

“Everybody must get stoned”, that’s another one of his.

 

 

 

Gram Parsons Put Me On It.

When Gram Parsons joined the Byrds he needed little of his Southern charm to steer his new band members along the Country roads on their LP “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” (1968). Bass player Chris Hillman had grown up playing Bluegrass & guitarist/singer Roger McGuinn was a folkie before they went following into the jingle-jangle morning. The problem was that America’s Woodstock Nation viewed Country as over-sentimental, clean-cut & conservative, the soundtrack for Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s silent majority. Coming back at ya, the denizens of Nashville & the Grand Ole Opry were not about to give a bunch of longhairs from California a fair hearing. I was in that first camp, Mum was a big fan of Jim Reeves, I wasn’t. Gram’s love & appreciation of Country, allied to great songwriting talent & an achingly beautiful voice, produced original music that moved the tradition forward. His choice of songs to cover in his short life were always worthy of further investigation which proved that those Nashville Cats played clean as country water & that the Devil did not have all the best tunes.

 

 

 

Image result for louvin brothersAh, the Louvin Brothers, Ira & Charlie from Rainsville, Alabama. Their song “The Christian Life” appeared on “Sweetheart…”. It’s the antithesis of a rock lyric & a great tune. Anyhow, you may not heed God’s call “but what is a friend who wants you to fall”. Their early career was interrupted by Charlie’s military service in Korea & it was 1955 before they appeared at the Grand Ole Opry. The brothers were steeped in Gospel & it was only around this time that they first recorded secular music. The following year was their breakthrough with 4 Top 10 Country hits & the release of the LP “Tragic Songs of Life”, a superb collection of heartbreak, doom & murder. These boys could sing. Ira usually took the lead but their close harmonies, swooping & soaring & so natural, are a thing of wonder. “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby”, the lightest of their songs, makes the cut here because it’s a chance to see just how the duo did it in living colour. Check “You’re Running Wild”, a high, lonesome delight, or “Cash on the Barrelhead”, a song I was introduced to by GP’s version on his posthumous classic “Grievous Angel”.

 

Charlie Louvin was a respected, respectable God-fearing man. Brother Ira, was a womaniser & a mean drunk given to smashing his mandolin on-stage when his mood took a wrong turn. On a tour with Elvis Presley the new young star professed his love for Gospel music & was dismissed by Ira for the “trash” Elvis performed. His third wife, there were four, shot him 4 times in the chest & twice in the hand after he tried to strangle her with a telephone cord. Ira pulled through. The many stories add piquancy to their songs about the temptations of sin. By 1963 Charlie had had his fill of this abuse & split up the act. The Louvins were inspired by the Delmore Brothers, stars in the 1930s. In 1960 they recorded an LP of their songs. By this time Rock & Roll was the thing & the Everly Brothers, influenced by Ira & Charlie, were at the top of the tree, continuing the timeline of the families that play together.

 

 

For his solo LPs Gram found the perfect foil in Emmylou Harris, a young folk singer from the Washington DC area. “GP” (1973) featured 2 duets, both rather minor country hits. “That’s All It Took” was co-written by George Jones a legend of American music who had started out in the honky tonks but whose orderly Countrypolitan style was just the thing younger audiences disliked about Nashville’s output. George’s great voice, his ability to invest part of himself & to achieve a universality in the songs he recorded made him something of a model for Gram Parsons. I discovered more about George Jones, the original of “A Good Year For the Roses”, after Elvis Costello’s cover, the tender melodrama of his 1980 #1 “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, the duets with his wife Tammy Wynette & the alcohol fuelled dramas from their marriage. It was almost 30 years since I fell in love with the sound of Gram & Emmylou before I heard, from what I thought to be an unlikely pairing, the original of “That’s All It Took”.

 

Image result for gene pitney george jonesGene Pitney’s first hit in the UK was his dramatic, memorable interpretation of Bacharach & David’s “Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa”. Gene had previous as a songwriter for teen idols Bobby Vee (“Rubber Ball”) & Ricky Nelson (“Hello Mary Lou”). Phil Spector picked up “He’s A Rebel” for a #1 by the Crystals, though the girl group did not sing on the record. I liked Gene Pitney. The follow up to “24 Hours…” was the first cover of a Rolling Stones song to reach the charts. His multi-tracked ballads were original & distinctive during the British Beat Boom. What I didn’t know was that while he was making these hits he recorded 2 LPs of duets with George Jones. “For the First Time ! Two Great Stars” opens with the marvellously titled “I’ve Got 5 Dollars & It’s Saturday Night”. There are standards, a few of George’s songs & a song that I’d loved since I first heard it in 1973. An incongruous duo but it worked.

 

 

Image result for harlan howardHarlan Howard, though I didn’t know it at the time, was responsible for one of the first pop hits that I was aware of. “Heartaches By the Numbers”, a country hit for Ray Price became an international pop hit for Guy Mitchell & Harlan took his satchel full of songs to Nashville where he found instant success having 15 hits in 1961. By the time Gram recorded his versions of 2 of Howard’s tunes he was being inducted into Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame. On “Burrito Deluxe” (1970) the Flying Burrito Brothers covered “Image of Me”, a country hit for Conway Twitty. “Streets of Baltimore” (“GP”) is a sad vignette about a Tennessee cowboy who took his wife to the big city & left her there when she chose the bright lights over him.

 

Image result for gram parsonsBack then I thought I knew nothing more about Harlan Howard beyond those two credits on the labels of much-played records. He had a hand in more than 100 hits & what we have here is his fine version of “I Fall to Pieces”, a smash for the greatest of the female country singers Patsy Cline. Other artists picked up on his songs. Ray Charles, whose 1962 LP “Modern Sounds in Country & Western” had ignored musical labels & just smashed it, found “Busted” on a Johnny Cash record. In 1969 Joe Simon took “The Choking Kind” to #1 in the R&B charts (between the Isley Brothers & Marvin Gaye). Harlan Howard defined country music as “three chords & the truth”. This was what Gram Parsons was aiming for & something we should all have around.