Tuesday 26 November 2013

Dave Lee Travis & Radio One in the 1970's


There was a time when 
Radio One DJ’s were celebrity stars in their own right. 
Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis were national figures. 
But back then, in radio terms, there was nowhere else to go.

The ‘Hairy Cornflake’. In Peter Kay’s catchphrase... what’s all that about? What IS it all about? Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis used to broadcast to peak audience figures around the time listeners were enjoying their breakfast. He has a beard. We all know that ‘cos we’ve seen him on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Hence he was consumed alongside of, and as part of the daily national diet. Hairy DJ. Cornflakes. No? Not funny. Perhaps it wasn’t even particularly funny then. Quack-Quack Oops! Or maybe that needs explaining too…?

The 1970’s was less a decade, than a bridge between the sixties and the eighties. It opens with the overhang of the Harold Wilson-Edward Heath mixed-economy consensus that had navigated Britain from post-war austerity to the Swinging London boom. And endures long enough for the patchwork decade to close with the advent of Margaret Thatcher inaugurating a less compassionate more acquisitive future. When the nostalgia-industry seizes upon the seventies it fumbles for trashy Glam and Glitter. A distant planet on which the media was narrower, to the point of monolithic. There were three television channels, ITV, BBC1 and BBC2. There was no network of commercial radio. There was very little by way of regional BBC radio stations.

But if the 1960’s had evolved the global template for Pop Music, the 1970’s formatised and fine-tuned its delivery system. In the previous decade when time and cash was tight, shiny black vinyl constituted a considered and thought-out purchase. Suddenly, with more disposable teen-cash than ever before, singles were treated like Frisbees, bought on a whim, and dumped as quickly. In the 1960’s the writing-production team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley blueprinted a Pop production-line using the likes of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky and Tich to front their songs. It guaranteed a string of hits. Now Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn took up the model and honed it into a Hit Factory that dominated the new decade, just as Stock-Aitken-Waterman would do for the eighties.

Dave Lee Travis – aka David Patrick Griffin (born 25 May 1945) had worked on Radio Caroline from September 1965 onwards. It was the biggest of the Pirate Radio stations that briefly challenged the BBC dominance of British airwaves, and showed up its output as dull, formal and old-fashioned. You catch a distorted glimpse of what it was like in Richard Curtis’ ‘The Ship That Rocked’ (2009). As a sop to the outlawing of off-shore stations the BBC rejigged its corporate structure, relabeling its old Light Programme as Radio One. Radio Two continued the old snooze for an ageing demographic that could safely be ignored. Radios Three and Four were for talk-radio and classical output. You want Pop, you listen to Radio One. There’s nowhere else to go.

Dave Lee Travis joined Radio One to present ‘Pop North’ and to do weekend spots. By 1971 he’d been promoted to the national weekday lunchtime slot. In 1976 he assumed the teatime show, rebranding it ‘It’s DLT OK!’ – 4:30 to 5:45, before finally unseating Noel Edmonds at the coveted Breakfast Show in May 1978. The ‘Hairy Cornflake’ phase. Needless to say, there was no Breakfast TV. DJ’s were pilots of the airwaves who might play your request. The bright good-morning voice, playing all the hits for you. Even John Peel comments about how, when you wake up in the morning and turn on the radio, the first song you hear stays with you all day. No matter how trite, you find yourself humming it inside your head.

DLT, for that is how he refers to himself, now talks with bitter pride of the massive audiences his shows reached, with an authenticated ten-million listeners. It’s hardly surprising. In the monoculture of the 1970’s they had a monopoly. He and Tony Blackburn had national star-profiles that dwarfed many of the so-called music star names on the 45rpm singles they spun. ‘Top Of The Pops’ had launched at the height of the Beat-Boom on New Year’s Day 1964. By the seventies it was a must-see fixture that not only reflected, but fashioned the charts it was based around. It was a neat conspiracy. The ‘heavy’ groups playing the various strands of underground music grown out of the counter-culture, the Blues-based experimental improvisational music, was catered for by the late-night John Peel shows. Day-time radio had its golden oldie spots, but it created and defined what the charts looked and sounded like.

Sweet are a good example. They’d enjoyed a modest run of catchy lightweight hits. But then Chinn-Chapman used them to hit overdrive. “Blockbuster” became the group’s first no.1 in January 1973, based around a commercialised variant of the Who’s high-energy attack. And for its ‘Top Of The Pops’ presentation they assumed a Glam guise, with the token gender-bending member (bassist Steve Priest) who would become obligatory for the others who followed. The tie-in was a perfect storm. Radio One would play the new Chinn-Chapman record. As the station became attuned to the brand, radio-plays became routine. Once a foothold in the lower region of the chart qualified the record for ‘Top Of The Pops’ inclusion, there was a 2.30-minute TV-slot there to ram that record further into national awareness. How could that most efficiently be achieved? By visual overload. Time was tight. They were miming to a set soundtrack. The flexible-element lay in garb. Hence the need to maximise its impact so kids talked excitedly about you in the schoolyard the following day, while effectively defining the necessary generational gulf by provoking ‘what the hell is THAT?!?!’ from Dad in the corner, with deliciously conflated outrage at every fluttering eye-linered eyelash and camp flourish (because there was still just one family TV, as the font-room focal-point).

Glam, as an element of the UK Pop machine, was fashioned by the immaculate elision of Radio One and ‘Top Of The Pops’. At first it was T Rex and Slade alternating at the top slot. Then Sweet and Gary Glitter. The irony being that although Paul Raven had been around, and recording since 1959, it was with Mike Leander that he devised the ‘Gary Glitter’ persona. Yet the breakthrough single happened with the throwaway instrumental B-side of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Resulting in him debuting on ‘Top Of The Pops’ without a singing role! Yet the monstrously camp bacofoil-vision he presented ensured the vocal follow-up charted, until his “I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)” took him finally to no.1, roaring on-stage astride a Harley with an outrageously pantomime repertoire of shocked stares, raised eyebrows, and a huge laugh-out-loud false quiff. Alvin Stardust who’d already enjoyed a 1960’s career as Shane Fenton, returned as a gross 1950’s pastiche in black leather so tightly enveloping he was scarce able to move, merely weaving a ring-encrusted finger at the camera lens (in a manner reminiscent of Dave Berry). The appalling Bay City Rollers and bland Osmonds devolved and devalued Pop further, with their Pavlovian teen-audiences acting-out their learned function. Girls screamed at Sinatra and Elvis. They screamed at the Beatles and the Stones. This is what you do. So they scream. With no clear idea why.

Then there were the groups who didn’t actually exist. Those one-off singles that were studio-fabricated by professional writer-producer teams using a core of slick session-players. When such a single entered the lower region of the chart it became necessary to recruit a group of appropriately telegenic boys to become that group for promotional purposes. Although Tony Burrows sings lead on “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” (no.1 in January 1970) – and was also the voice on hits by the Pipkins, White Plains and First Class, he was never actually a member of Edison Lighthouse. While the startling falsetto on “Sugar Baby Love” (no.1 in May 1974) was performed by Paul da Vinci, although he was never a member of the Rubettes. If they were fortunate – like the Rubettes, the subsequently hastily-assembled group actually got to play on their own follow-up singles, unlike Edison Lighthouse for whom there was to be no future career. This practice was hardly unprecedented. For Phil Spector’s 1960’s hits the Crystals and the Ronettes heard on the vinyl was not necessarily the Crystals and Ronettes you saw on tour or on your TV. But the unique configuration of early-1970’s UK Pop made it ideally suited to such playful scams.

Alvin Stardust’s hits, incidentally, were released on the tiny Magnet label. Although there were a few pioneering Indie labels they were still a minority. The acceleration of the Indie sector would not gain momentum until post-Punk. The majors still controlled who made records, and who didn’t. The record shops stocked those records. Kids went into town to buy them. The marketing and in-house PR agents were targeting a music press and radio network in a closed-circuit cosy synergy.

Trash-Pop belonged to the Radio One DJ’s. Because there was nowhere else to go. Dave Lee Travis and cheery Tony Blackburn were radio-faces. There was also ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton, Simon Bates, Bruno Brookes, Emperor Rosko, and Annie Nightingale. Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman played his ‘Pick Of The Pops’, climbing his way up the Top Thirty every Sunday, Pop-Pickers. There was also Jimmy Savile, Kenny Everett, and the rest. Chances are that whoever’s backsides warmed those DJ-chairs would become established as names and faces. It just happened to be these names and faces. They were not yet self-styled as presenters, they were disc-jockeys who burbled between the hits. It was fun, it was silly. It was daft. But it was a frivolous decade.

They did listener phone-in’s and played jingles, an incorrect answer to the bizarre concept of ‘Give Us A Break’ – Davis Lee Travis’ ‘Snooker On The Radio’, earned the listener a Quack-Quack Oops! in novelty-synthesiser voice. Was it good? Not really. It was just… there. You turn on the radio, and it’s there. A background gibberish between snatched half-heard music. It seeps in like a sludge of tepid chip-fat to congeal around your brain. I heard it, almost without realising it, without conscious effort. You did too, don’t try to deny it. They were amiable buffoons. They were non-threatening jesters, friends at the turn of a dial. Programming was rigidly structured. With the breakfast slot catering to commuters, kids setting out for school, with regular time-checks to synchronise leaving for the bus. The morning show targets housewives – as they still were, or the factories where Radio One was relayed over speakers. “Blockbuster” itself was criticised because its siren-effect confused factory-workers who mistook it for the fire alarm.

Punk could be effectively ignored, or restricted to John Peel. Daytime radio waited until it became a safer New Wave, and more radio-friendly groups such as Jam or the Police came along. In the meantime it played its cosy diet of Carpenters, Abba and the New Seekers. And the latest Chinn-Chapman creation, from Mud to Smokie to Suzi Quatro. If the old Light Programme had wallowed in its self-satisfied complacency, its new Radio One-One-One-derful replacement soon eased itself into the same tired run-out groove. As insubstantial as tinsel, controversy not only discouraged, but ruthlessly eradicated. When DLT had the temerity to suggest listeners support a petition to outlaw the seal-cull clubbing, he was swiftly censured. When he later voiced his bitterness about the Smashie & Nicey caricature as perpetrated by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, it was largely because their sketches were so accurately barbed. When Elvis Costello voiced his frustrations about radio being ‘in the hands of such a lot of fools, tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel’, they played that too because the catchy satirical chorus goes ‘wonderful radio, marvellous radio, wonderful radio, Radio Radio, Radio Radio’.

The ‘Radio One Roadshow’ was an annual exercise in populism, devised by controller Johnny Beerling, as a way of getting it out of studio-confines and taking it to the people. Alan Freeman hosted the first one, broadcast live from Newquay’s North Fistral Beach on 23 July 1973, then trundling on to perform from the drizzling car-parks and windy promenades of Britain’s other seaside resorts. Kid Jensen and Paul Burnett did it. DLT did Torquay in 1976 with guests, merchandising, games, and navigator ‘Smiley Miley’ (Tony Miles). It was grim fun in a cheerful ‘Hi-de-Hi!’ kind of way. A good time was had by all, in which the DJ’s got to mingle and entertain and do their thing to a largely-responsive and appreciative live crowd.

In some cases the DJ’s actually became the records they played. Jimmy Savile started in 1962 with a Decca single “Ahab The Arab”. Although Tony Blackburn’s run of singles failed to chart – “So Much Love” reached no higher than no.31 in January 1968, a contrivance masquerading as Laurie Lingo And The Dipsticks actually hit no.7 in April 1976 with an anglicised version of CW McCall’s citizen-band hit “Convoy”. It was an atrocity committed by Dave Lee Travis and Paul Burnett. Mildly amusing at best, its Top Ten status had more to do with the familiarity of its participants than its quality. While, although the rota of ‘Top Of The Pops’ provided a visibility window, the transition to television represented a career move on and up. Kenny Everett, an innovative and experimental radio DJ who took the cut-up style pioneered by Jack Jackson (interspersing his own voice with clips of Tony Hancock and others), then remade himself into a dubious TV figure with his over-the-top comedy shows. Noel Edmonds, who got his radio-break replacing Everett when Kenny was first fired from Radio 1, used his radio-tenure as an up-gear stepping-stone to a long-term TV career. Jimmy Savile did ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, creepily teasing sniggering little girls with ‘are you married?’, then scoring lucrative TV-ad contracts for ‘Klunk-Klik’ and ‘The Age Of The Train’. Alan Freeman did voice-over ads for ‘Brentford Nylons’. Even Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart transitioned his ‘Junior Choice’ radio-status across to front ‘Crackerjack’ on TV, despite having no discernible rapport with children.

Dave Lee Travis never quite achieved that transition. He guested on the ‘Celebrity Squares’ game-show with Bonnie Langford and Little & Large, and revenged himself on Noel Edmonds for a practical-joke phone-in by ‘gunging’ him on ‘Noel’s House Party’. His most determined shot came when video became the weapon of choice in Pop promotion, and he inaugurated ‘The Golden Oldie Picture Show’ (from 9 January 1985), a BBC1 series in which videos were devised around old pre-video hits, some of which were mildly amusing, but without the active participation of the artist, they largely failed to ignite, and the show was dropped. Video didn’t kill the radio star. But it didn’t help his career either.

The neat tie-in would not outlast the time-frame. Christopher Chataway, Minister of Post and Telecommunications, announced his intention to introduce airwave competition. And as early as 1973 licences were granted for the first commercial radio stations, LBC and Capital Radio, with a broadcasting range restricted to London. Although temporarily halted by a suspicious Labour government in 1976, the return of a Conservative administration in 1979 led to a rapid expansion of the ILP network into the Eighties. This process was shadowed by the growth of local BBC stations. Yet Radio One retained its potency. During the 1979 election campaign Labour leader Michael Foot hoofed up and down Britain addressing and haranguing every meeting and assembly. Mrs Thatcher appeared on the Jimmy Young Radio Show once, spoke about running the economy as her father had run his corner-shop in Grantham, and the gross simplification made such sense to the mass radio audience that she had to do no more.

Radio One itself began to adjust to the changes. Kenny Everett caught a new mood, ‘I hate DJs who just say ‘that was Ricky Twinge and The Midwives, the time is now 10:15 on your groovy platter station, Radio 1, and now a great big biggy from a really outasite band “You’re Too Much” by the Stoatcatchers.’ As Radio Two audience-figures grew proportionally to the shifting demographic, Radio One lost its on-air supremacy, and through the initiative of controllers Johnny Beerling and Matthew Banister, began a deliberate policy of repositioning itself towards targeting a more youthful listenership. By the time Dave Lee Travis delivered his on-air resignation – 8 August 1993, there was a plethora of alternatives in which to continue a radio career. But the audience-figures of the 1970’s were gone forever. DJ’s had evolved into double-deck club superstars. Zoo-radio presenters had studio posses to laugh appropriately at their scripted gags. Chris Evans and Chris Moyles rode the ‘Breakfast Show’ into new decades. Ask the majority of people in your local mall today who presents the Radio One Breakfast Show, or who has the current no.1 single, and they shrug. Who cares…? While Dave Lee Travis is accused of being a serial sex-offender. Following in Jimmy Savile’s squalid wake. Regardless of the truth behind the allegations, it’s a sad postscript to a shoddy decade. At their very best, they seemed eccentrically harmless. The novelty fridge-magnets that remind you of the frivolous holiday you spent at the tacky seaside resort. Now they’re not even that.


Michael Yates said...

From Michael Yates: Hello Andrew! In your review of David Huxley’s Nasty Tales, you make passing reference to the comics crackdown of the fifties (“questions in the House and the subsequent imposition of the Comics Code”). Have you read Martin Barker’s A Haunt of Fears (Pluto Press, 1984), where he goes into vivid detail about the banning of “horror comics” in Britain around 1955? I’d always thought the campaign was run by the Usual Suspects – clergymen, Tory MPs, killjoy teachers – and was shocked to discover that it started with the British Communist Party. The CPGB were apparently held in such contempt by the general public that they could only campaign through proxies; and their original target – American war comics – got lost in the chain of Chinese whispers. I thought that, if you’d not read Barker’s book, you’d be as amazed as I was and suitably amused; it probably chimes with your sense of humour since I saw you described your politics as “Groucho Marxist”. Yours, Mick

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