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Monday, April 8, 2013


I am not going to pretend to know much about music, although it has undeniable power and influence. I have myself been moved to tears of joy or rage - a beautiful song at a funeral  - or muzak in a stuck elevator.

At school at ten years old, I had music lessons via a regular radio program with an accompanying book of lyrics and stories about the songs. That was multi-media for the sixties! Thirty of us sang a large variety of folk songs, so-called “Negro” spirituals, and sea-shanties from around the world. In later years, I was to find out that the lyrics had been cleaned up quite a bit – I suppose that references to the ladies of the night in English seaport towns was a bit shocking to teachers even in those swinging times.

Other musical experiences were at the daily religious service. All English state schools were, by definition, Anglican and had daily prayers and hymns. Later on, I joined the school choir. Hymns, ancient and modern, Christmas carols. I can't say I hated it - until I learned the error of my ways.

This revelation came with my adolescent realization that the music I had experienced thus far was crap. I blamed the government. At this time there were only three radio stations in Britain. The BBC had a monopoly on radio broadcasting, for reasons to do with the National well-being. The Home Service had news, serious talk and drama. The Light Programme, old-people's popular music, some good comedy, some soap operas. The Third Programme featured classical music. Music that was actually popular with the under-thirties didn't get played at all. This was 1967.

Little did I know that the recording industry or copyright reasons enforced a legal limit of a total of only five hours recorded music daily on the BBC, for fear that it would cut into sales of records. The Beatles had become practically has-beens by the time they were heard on the BBC (we may think of their music as a bit pedestrian now, indeed I have heard it in elevators, but then it was characterized as “not what the public wanted”).

As a young child, listening to the music on the radio was alright, quite jolly really. Sometimes uplifting sometimes hummable. However, at thirteen I learned that the BBC was a tool of the capitalist repression of...whatever it was that was being repressed. I decided that it was soft, wet, lying and hateful. I rebelled. I started listening to Pirate Radio! I lived in the south-east corner of England from where one could hear the broadcasts of Radio Luxembourg, and from the “pirate” ships, Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London.

The music was new, fun and exciting. The disc-jockeys were American sounding and irreverent. They had interesting sound effects, jingles and, yes, advertising! Good heavens! Nothing so exciting on the BBC! 

I bought several really bad record albums based on a single hearing of a single song. So much for advertising. Funnily enough, hearing new music on the radio actually made people go out and buy records! The recording industry was in turn shocked and appalled and quietly banking the proceeds.

Now I wasn't a complete fool. It was illegal to listen to unlicensed and unauthorized radio stations. I planned this law-breaking step very carefully. I decided to listen but, I would only do it in the bath, where I thought that I and my little battery-powered transistor radio might escape detection by Big Brother. The signals were really barely audible even with an earpiece. I felt like a wartime spy in enemy country. My family were puzzled and annoyed that I spent so much time locked in the bathroom. I expect that they thought I was smoking.

Eventually, the BBC fought back against my campaign of terror. They opened a fourth radio station that was called, rather oddly, Radio One. They hired a few middle-aged disc-jockeys and they had strong, stable signals. No teenaged hipsters like me were fooled. The smarmy, smiling faces of the “housewives' friends” were all over the the “Radio Times”, a publication that I eschewed. Although as the official organ of the BBC which carried the exclusive weekly listing of all forthcoming programming on the 2 TV stations and 4 radio channels, I also frantically consulted it when it was delivered each week.

Further salvos came from the British government which pushed to prosecute the advertisers who supported the pirate stations and they gradually went out of business (thus fulfilling my paranoid view of a nanny state that suppressed all the fun.)

In reality it wasn't the BBC that was a tool of the capitalists. Music had become a commodity with vast profits, to be bought and sold, together with the audience. The model had been set in the United States and the pressure was mounting to cater to, and to fleece, the large and growing "Baby Boomer" population. Over the next few years pressure to sell music by radio broadcast had become enormous. People were being bribed, or demanding bribes, to promote music. By 1973, independent private radio stations were permitted and they followed the old pirate radio formula. Some of the hosts were former pirates. It was all fun, laughs and advertising.

Since then, popular music as fashion has seen wave after wave of rebellion, consolidation, stagnation and rebellion once more. It's interesting to think back and realize how my tastes were manipulated into liking things that were derivative, stolen, silly and actually pretty bad. The radio stations of today are like the fossilized remains of these eras. We now have a large number of formulaic commercial radio stations each of which contains the exact flavour of music that will appeal to a particular age group with the advertising to match. These are mass produced by a California company called Clear Channel. I look forward to the “Classic Rock” station that features advertizing for incontinence products for seniors and retirement homes.

And for today's thirteen-year-olds, the rebellion of Pirate Radio is on the high seas of the Internet. The music continues.

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