Monday, 25 April 2011

Radio's oldies but goodies: who decides what we hear?

What perspective do 35 year olds use when programming 50 year old songs on the radio?

First things first: this post has been triggered by an invite from old pals Mean Street Dealers. They were also known as Hooker and School Sports, but, as Mean Street Dealers, they truly were one of Brum’s finest bands in the mid-70s. And, like a lot of excellent bands, they kind of got swept away by punk towards the end of that decade. Punk, for all its early DIY spontaneity, soon became  yet another marketing device for the music industry. This made life hard for bands who had been knocking on the door for more than a couple of years. Remember all those outfits that suddenly had to pretend that they couldn’t actually play?

But that’s another story. Mean Street Dealers could play then (and how), and now they are planning a comeback gig, on Friday 8th July at the Asylum in Hockley. Here’s the reunion gig info in more detail. I will dj at the event; I'm really looking forward to it. And that’s started me thinking for this blog post.

It’s about the kind of repertoire I might use at the gig. There are tons and tons of fine songs from the mid 70s, now largely forgotten. Put them together, in some kind of musical context, and they punch way above their weight. Not many people over the age of 45 will remember splendid outfits like The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Family, Bebop Deluxe, or, Doctor Feelgood apart, pub rock stalwarts like Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, Supercharge, the Kursaal Flyers… the list goes on.

Back in the day, I used to have a Sunday night dj residency dj at the long-lost Barbarella’s. 50p in, me on the decks, mainly local bands on the bill, midnight close. Happy days. Incidentally, that weekly gig paid me more than half what I was earning at the time at BRMB for five nights on air… which just goes to show that local radio paid crappy wages then and, so I am reliably informed, still does now.

Of the music I used then, much is still current fodder for today’s Classic Rock stations. Floor fillers came from the likes of Thin Lizzy, Bob Seger, Stones, Zeppelin, Quo, Sabbath, Purple, Skynyrd… you get the drift. But, as most live DJs will attest, when you have a rocking crowd that’s seriously up for it, that’s exactly when you can cut loose with some tasty material. Generally too, that’s what you could do on a Sunday night at Barb’s.

I find it mildly depressing, checking out Classic Rock radio today, that much of this rich, rich repertoire has faded away and been filtered out from what is seen as suitable for airplay. Of course, a lot of material has disappeared into contractual black holes. Someone has the rights to the material and is in dispute with someone else, and so the song fades from view. But other material, I think, is lost to us because it simply is not being championed by the people who programme the output. And maybe that’s because they weren’t around when that stuff first came out.

Of course, each generation uses the music of previous generations in different ways. And, truth be told, I do believe those stations that support Classic Rock in some shape or form – Planet Rock, Radio 2, 6 Music, even Absolute Classic Rock on occasion - are doing a reasonable job. It gets a LOT worse when you listen to Gold stations. For example, if you check out the Motown or Stax/Volt catalogues, you will find Deep Soul treasures beyond compare. But the scant repertoire served up to us on most Gold stations is filtered by cautious programmers who either don’t know or care about the breadth of material on offer, or, fatally, will research each song individually for contemporary audience appeal.

And that’s a problem for Radio with a lot of vintage material. Either you drop back to placing it on a pedestal, and patronisingly - especially with Classical and Jazz - explain the material half to death. But that implies production costs and time that a lot of stations can’t afford. The alternative? Take the timid research-driven route: cut back, trim, and prune… until you’re left with just the old material that new audiences know. No wonder Gold audiences are tanking. No wonder most Gold stations have long since abandoned most of their 60s and 70s material, and are starting to look hard at their early 80s repertoire.

The way forward? Know your music. Love it. Take it out of the box. Treat it as a shared pleasure. That’s what the very best djs do, on radio, online or live.

And that is exactly what I plan to do at the Mean Street Dealers’ gig. Boy, it’s going to be fun. Now, has anyone got a copy of ‘Rolling On’? 


1 comment:

Dave said...

Agree wholeheartedly with your views. I saw Hooker/Schools Sports/Mean St Dealers back in the 70's (at the Barrel Organ mostly) and you're right - quality songs/playing just doesn't afford any degree of success or at least recognition. Sad but I guess that's how the business is and has always been - not just confined to the music business is it but that's another story.
Local radio in the 70's certainly tried to expose a wide range local artists but I think nowadays it's limited and they appear to follow an agenda - do they play commercially and do they all look good?
Anyway, I hope to be at the MSD gig tomorrow at the Asylum. Bent Needles captured the era brilliantly and my home made cd copy from the LP plays well and often!