Below is an extract of part of a chapter of my next book “Outside In – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
This chapter relates to 2001/2002, when I did the breakfast show on the original, pirate-era, Phantom FM.
I’m posting it today because I happen to be playing the band in question, this morning, as part of episode 290 of An A-Z of Great Tracks on 8radio.com
This particular track, and this particular chapter, sum up so much of what I feel about music and radio, I just wanted to take the opportunity to share this chapter when the track came up in the A-Z.
24 – If A Band Falls In A Forest, Are They Worth It?
Flashback to 2001.
It is just after sunset on a weekday evening sometime in late summer. I am in the front room of a suburban house somewhere just off the Rock Road in Dublin, within a stones throw of the sea. I can’t remember exactly where, now, but I do remember the excitement of all involved, especially myself.
I was in a house I’d never been to before, facing four lads I didn’t know, who were about to give me a wonderful gift – their dreams, inspiration and perspiration, all wrapped up in that little package of hope that is called a demo CD. They gave it to me, freshly burned and unlabelled, and I was out the door promising them that yes, I would listen to it, and yes, I would give it a spin on the breakfast show on Phantom .
Phantom’s music controllers, John Caddell (International) and Paul Clarke (Irish) were always on the lookout for good new material, and Paul hosted a Wednesday night show devoted entirely to new Irish music, and was legendary on the scene for the unstinting support he gave to new bands.
Once I had settled into the breakfast show, I started to develop something of a reputation myself, not on the scale of Paul in terms of his quantity and quality, but as a breakfast DJ with willingness to put new material straight on the air, without letting my own opinions moderate, and without any vetting process other than making sure that the contents were not obscene. I really believed in what Phantom was doing, and was always willing to give a new band a play, and indeed later developed a feature or “hook” on my show whereby I would ask people to send me in their demos, and I would open the package, and put it straight on, live on air, giving a running commentary of what it looked like and anything else in the envelope. The music wasn’t always outstanding, but it sometimes showed promise, and best of all it made for wonderful live radio.
There were unintended comic interludes too, like the time that a then unknown band called Ham Sandwich left me a CD, and to pique my interest, they included a real ham sandwich in the package. Sadly I was away for a few days when it arrived, so when I did open the package on air, it was to a quite noxious smell . . .
Better still was my dumbfounded silence and quick switch to music one morning when the package I opened during a live link, expecting a musical treat, turned out not to be, as I had expected, a demo from some new band, but some photos and a rather explicit mail from Karen (see previous chapter).
But to go back to the lads in the house somewhere off the Rock Road, I did indeed play their music, and liked it so much that I still have the CD nearly twenty years later. There were two epic long tracks and one very passable 4 minute single-candidate on their demo, with a depth of lyrics that matched the passion I had seen on their faces during our brief encounter.
Nothing ever came of this band, indeed I never heard of them again, and as far as I can make out, they must have split up and gone their different ways many years ago without even the faintest glimmer of the success that I felt they deserved. I can find no trace of them now, and an internet search only reveals a new, and seemingly unrelated Dublin poprock band who have taken the same name – “Milk“.
Now, by any definition of those involved in mainstream radio, my demo tracks from the original 2001-era Milk band are unknown, unplayable, in effect worthless. But I ask myself – why?
Does it matter that these people had no rise to fame, no chart success, no record deal? If I like what I hear when I play the CD, does it matter that no one knows them? If a piece of music deserves to be heard for the passion put into it, why should it be discounted just because it is unknown?
For me, music, once committed from the soul of its creator to the medium of storage, is a valid choice forever, even if it is the tree falling in the forest that nobody is there to hear.
So many trees fall in the vast forest that is the music industry, and so few people are willing to venture far enough in from the edge of the forest to hear them . .
An A-Z of Great Tracks continues to air each Wednesday evening 8-9pm (repeated Saturdays 10-11am) on 8Radio.com from Dublin.
I’ve waited a week to publish the two most recent playlists together (episode 7, 12th Feb 2014 and episode 8, 19th Feb) as viewed together they show some of the range of different styles and themes that come up as the weeks unfold.
Episode 7 certainly had gaze firmly set further in the past, with Leadbelly and Fats Domino representing the styles of music which inspired many of the later 60s and 70s rock artists. More of a Soul and folk rock feel, while episode 8 had more rock and indie. Quite often this mix is achieved within individual hours, but sometimes, the way the alphabet brings the tracks around, you will get bigger segments in the past, or present.
Arlo Guthrie‘s epic Alice’s Restaurant Massacree took up almost a third of one episode, but is one of those tracks that no self-respecting A-Z could possibly do without, managing to be both a great and entertaining record at the same time as being not only an important example of the protest song, but also an impromptu history lesson into the whole late 60s counterculture and military draft for Vietnam issue/era.
This week’s show was less weighty, but no less fun, with a chance to tease the Alisons of the world by first serenading them with Elvis Costello, before bringing them back down to earth as Steeleye Span describe Alison “the ugliest witch in the north country”.
As always, presenting live, I am open to change based on what feels right at the time, and somewhere during episode 8 a track was dropped less than a minute before it was due to be played as no longer felt right, and another one added later.
I’m lucky to be working on a station where I’m totally free to make whatever changes I like, not to mention being allowed to devise and run this entire mammoth series entirely myself, with no restrictions or input on what music I include in the A-Z.
Here is the tracklisting for episode 6 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, broadcast February 5th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 8th February 2014 from 10-11am.
This week, as well as the wonderful Leonard Cohen making his third appearance, we had forgotten album tracks from Patti Smith and Whitesnake, a nice slice of Nina Simone, and recent tracks from Prarie Dawgs (Irish) and The Phenomenal Handclap Band (International) whose 2012 “Form & Control” was the finest album of the year in my opinion.
The word “Ain’t” seems to draw forth some fine atmospheric contributions, and we continue with this word, and beyond next week in episode 7, when you will also be offered the chance to get anything you want . . .
Here is the tracklisting for episode 5 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, broadcast January 29th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 1st February 2014 from 10-11am.
Week 5 of the show, and I continue to rediscover gems, great and small, that I had all but forgotten.
This week’s surprise for me in my own library was “Adult Education” from Hall & Oates, a track much played on Caroline back in the mid-80s, but which I would swear I have never heard on the radio since. I’ve never been able to quite decide if the lyrics of this little piece represent wordplay of the best kind, or simple frat boy humour: “teachers don’t know how to deal with the student body” but either way, this is a slice of pure 80s, a throwback to a more innocent age, and a gem at that.
JJ Cale “After Midnight” another little piece of audio bliss for me too.
Next week, we come to a word that takes us into rich musical territory.
Here is the tracklisting for episode 4 of An A-Z of Great Tracks, live broadcast January 15th on 8Radio.com and due for repeat on Saturday 18th January 2014 from 10-11am.
Four weeks in, we’re now crossing over from the tracks beginning with the simple word “A” by itself, and into full words beginning with A – and Abacab has the honour of being the first proper A-word track to be played.
Between the two there is a little oddity in the form of A-Punk from Vampire Weekend. I wondered whether I should have moved this up and treated it as if there was a space rather than a hyphen, but in the end a bit of research showed me that the hyphenated version of the title seems to be pretty universal.
That’s one thing about compiling this show – it’s helping me do a top to bottom tidy of my music library, correcting any titles that are misplaced, mis-spaced or otherwise out of sync with reality. An example would be “A Whiter Shade of Pale” which closed off last weeks show – I wondered why I couldn’t find it in the As as I knew I had it, before finding that it had been mistitled as simply “Whiter Shade of Pale” when I copied it from my physical library a number of years ago.
And so, the As proper begin – and continue until around the end of April, by my calculations!
Here is the playlist for the third episode of An A-Z of Great Tracks. It’s my aim each week as we go through this marathon, to post not only the playlist for the show itself, but also my thoughts on the music involved, the production process, or anything else that comes to mind as I am on-air. And this week, although we are still very much at the beginning of the letter A musically, we will be thinking much of the letter J . .
Episode 3 aired on Jan 15th 2014 on 8Radio.com, in its regular weekly slot – 8-9pm Wednesday evenings – and as from this episode we have a repeat slot on the following Saturday morning 10-11.
So this week I want to share some thoughts on the presenting aspect of the show, as the pleasure that I get from doing that in a fairly flexible environment managed to turn what had been a pretty ratty day for me yesterday into a very enjoyable evening. The great Caroline presenter Bob Lawrence once told me that there is nowhere on earth more fun and exciting than being behind the mic on a live radio show, and as I walked into the 8Radio.com building last night and the day’s cares melted away, I smiled and thought about just how right he is.
Presenting live can be about so much more than simply playing a set sequence of tracks, if the station you work for allows you to exercise your “J” skills. The “J” in this case is the “jockey” part of “disc jockey“, a term that has tended to fall out of use in the radio world in favour of “presenter“, and not wholly for the obvious reason of “presenter” sounding more upmarket. There is a subtle difference between the meaning of the words that actually underlies a lot that has changed in radio.
But let’s start with the music from the track listing above. A good diversity this week, of styles (from indie and classic rock through to pop) eras (classic Cohen through to recent albums from Bell X1 and Editors) and feels (upbeat and punchy, softly emotional, sparkly near disco). Some weeks I have to work hard at my selection of A-Z tracks to achieve balance, and others just fall into place naturally, and this was one such week. The quirk this week was the double appearance of Procul Harum, this sort of thing will happen from time to time, but works out nicely in this case as we get to hear a lesser know (but wonderful) track first, with the more obvious one rounding off the show. My “should I or shouldn’t I?” track this week was the Duran Duran one – I thought about it, slept on it, asked a couple of friends, and then went with my gut instinct of “In”.
But if you look at the track listing above, simply as a listing of music to be played one item after another, there is still a little something missing. If you were to play these, juke-box style, on your mp3 player, you’d probably enjoy a lot of the tracks, but the switches in style and mood might be jarring. This is where the presenting – or I should say “jocking” – comes in.
Disc Jockeys were originally named because they would, in an aural sense, “ride” the discs they were playing, melding them together by beat or interspersing them with chat in such a way that no discernible gap was left in the “set”, and such that a collection of individual tracks were transformed into a whole. The style in which this was done would vary by context – in a disco or club building energy, keeping momentum on the dancefloor and seamless mixing of tracks are very important, whereas on radio there is a need to integrate a much wider mix of styles and speeds of track, and the necessity to give lots of information which in a club would distract or ruin the buzz.
There are really two styles of presenter on radio – ones whose show is predominantly personality driven (think Chris Evens or Chris Moyles) and those in whose programmes the music is the star, and they are the enabler of this music for the listener. (for the record, I would be in this second group).
The tragedy of a lot of modern radio is that it is assumed that unless you are doing a personality driven show, there is little or no need for personality, and no need for “jocking skills” in order to present a music show. And many radio stations rely on rigid presentation formats which effectively turn these shows into a simple jukebox/random mp3 player, with the presenter only allowed to make preordained “paint by numbers” interjections. And here is the difference between the “DJ” and the “presenter” – in many cases, no matter how talented the on-air staff are, they are restricted to simply “presenting” a preset menu of items, in which each segue, each station ident, each spoken link is fixed and immutable “play song A, play ident 313, play song B, short link promoting the breakfast show, play song C . .etc”
Radio station idents (or jingles as they used to be called) can be wonderful tools when used in the right way – the right one, at the right point, can build energy, act as a full stop after a cold ending song, block or transition between moods, and, just occasionally, help to keep the station identified, if you haven’t spoken for quite a while. But mainstream radio, more and more, has fallen into an utter fear of the listener not knowing which station they are listening to, to the point that on most stations it is mandatory for the presenter to play an ident after every single track, unless there is a spoken link (and sometimes as well as the spoken link).
This over-use serves another purpose, it helps disguise the fact that tracks are not longer (for the most part) put together to complement each other, but just random pairings from computerised rotations, and so something is needed to separate each one. The sad thing is that even tracks which would go wonderfully into each other end up being divorced by idents. And radio, far from being the friend of old, starts to sound like an insecure partner, constantly clamoring for you to notice them.
One of the most difficult transitions I ever made was when I was working for a former pirate station which then went legal, and later still got taken over by a big conglomerate. The free playlist of the pirate days gave way to something more structured in the legal era, but that was fine. the DJ still had control, could switch the running order of tracks as long as all were played, and could choose when to speak, what to say, and when and where to put idents.
But gradually, as time moved on, it became more and more locked down. Idents became mandatory between every track. Running order no longer to be changed. And, eventually, when taken over, the playlist eventually included defined points where you were allowed to speak, with instructions for the topic “promote new music” “promote next show” etc, and even duration “short link”. And the problem with these is that they were computer generated according to a predetermined format, and totally out of context with what was around them. So when you were playing a new track from a band who might be in for interview later on another show, you couldn’t promote it there, because you had no spoken link scheduled at that point. Where you might have spoken to break or build mood after songs A and B and before C, you now had to play A, B and C together, with idents, and then speak before D, despite the fact that if played together, C and D would actually have been wonderful partners.
Now, I have no problem with a music format. I’ve run tightly formatted music stations myself. Likewise, I’ve no problem with general guidelines for presenters – there should be a “house style” or whatever based on the audience you are addressing and the ethos of the station. But if you don’t marry that with a little bit of creative freedom for the on-air staff to “ride” the show, move stuff around, use thier best judgement to create natural breaks and changes – you are really only tapping a fraction of their talent, and only getting half of the product that you could actually be serving up to the listener.
OK, so I’m not saying that I’m some great DJ here. I’ve always regarded myself as merely “competent” and a “safe pair of hands” and have no illusions of being a superstar. I could never reach, nor aspire to, the heights of great personality presenters like Evans of Moyles, or top notch music presenters like Peel or Harris. But I’ve been around a long time, and worked with a lot of smart people (Hello Bob!) and more importantly, I’ve listened to a lot of radio, and learned what pleases me. And so I like to think that, if not a superstar, I am at least reasonably good at turning a bare bones playlist, such as the above, into something closer to a seamless whole.
And again, thanks to the enlightend leadership of Simon Maher at 8radio.com, I am allowed a free hand to structure the show as I choose. No restrictions on what I say and when I ID – he trusts to my common sense.
Given that I’m presenting an A-Z, the running order is less flexible in terms of music, though as I’m choosing only around one in six of the tracks from my library, I do have some scope to keep things balanced, and look for pairs of tracks that work together. But I probably have to work harder to make the show flow than I would if I could just drag and drop any track anywhere.
So, I start off the the list of tracks I’m intending to play (as from the image above) and first look at how they go together, and where I might want to speak. And then sprinkle in a small number of idents, not placed everywhere as on mainstream radio, but specifically at certain points according to what I am trying to achieve. And I choose each specific ident (rather than just playing any ident) for each slot, again according to what I’m trying to do.
I walk into the studio with my playlist ready, and a plan of what’s going to be done, but that plan is subject to change – and is always changed – while on-air.
So above is the end result, this is what my playout system shows after I finished the show last night. (I have my own music library and playout system which I use for this show) This is pretty close to what I went in with, but with a couple of minor changes (I put a break (music stops) between Bell X1 and Editors as I had more to say than could fit in the intro, and I dropped an ident over the start of Nick Straker Band literally 5 seconds before the track was about to begin. It just felt right.
You can see that, apart from the standard Top Of The Hour ID for our sponsors, I’ve only used 4 station idents in the whole hour. Ah, the joy of being able to let two pieces of music play into each other without having to have an intrusion between them!
The red “BREAK” sections are where I am talking dry, between tracks, with nothing playing. At other points I talk over intros (at The Cure, Duran Duran, and Bat for Lashes). For my own convenience, I’ve colour-coded my idents. Yellow idents have music or effects and play on their own to separate tracks from each other, while green ones are “dry” and play over the intro of the next track.
The Procul Harum “A Salty Dog” track and the Richard Ashcroft “A Song For The Lovers” work beautifully together, and segue nicely, to break them apart with either an ident or a spoken link would have been a travesty. Those two could also have led into The Cure track, but I wanted to speak here because I was delineating it, and the two that followed into a group of three which all featured “A Thousand” – one of the fun parts of the A-Z being the way that tracks will group themselves together thematically in this way.
Speaking after the end of the “Three Thousand Tracks” (!) breaks us up from Editors, which is very different, but the Genesis track that follows that is much slower, and so a yellow ident is needed to keep them apart. And so on. Duran Duran is more poppy than the other tracks in the show, but luckily the slightly disco-esque Nick Straker track is there to pair with it. I hadn’t planned on putting a dry ident over Nick, but when it got to 5 seconds counting down, it just felt overwhelmingly right.
That’s the fun of live radio when you are allowed to have control over what you do. You press play at the start of the show, and suddenly you are at the wheel of a mighty juggernaut roaring down the freeway at top speed, you can’t stop, you can’t get off, you have to keep control of it, and make all the little adjustments neccessary to keep it moving forwards in the centre of the lane . .
It’s really addictive stuff, and no matter how you are feeling when you arrive at the station, once that red light goes on, nothing else matters.
By contrast, a live radio show where every little detail is pre-scripted, immutable, and not really designed to flow feels like flying a plane . . on autopilot.
I can’t stress highly enough how many really good people there are out there in radio, the majority of them way better than I can ever hope to be, but who are sitting, with their hands tied, behind a microphone, and being told to “sound excited”.
Isn’t it better to be excited?
It’s time we put the J back into DJ don’t you think?
Here is the playlist for the second episode of An A-Z of Great Tracks, and there are a couple of entries here that I thought long and hard about before settling on the final list.
The show aired on Jan 8th 2014 on 8Radio.com, in its regular weekly slot – 8-9pm Wednesday evenings.
So, the second show of the series, and we are still wending our way through the very beginning of the letter A, those tracks who titles start with the word “A” – we’re not yet even up to actual words beginning with the letter a, which is a week or two away.
I’ve pretty much settled the running order for all my A tracks – 16 weeks worth – but as always with live radio, I will sometimes make changes at the last minute based on mood or feel, or, in this case, balance (As the programme was airing I added in the Foo Fighters track to provide a bit more contemporary rock, as otherwise this hour would have been very heavily retro – it’s usually more balanced, but the luck of the draw means that you will tend to get clumps of older or newer tracks together from time to time. And as a result of this, a track that would have finished the show got pushed into next week).
A couple of tracks in particular gave me pause for thought when I was compiling the list, and in both cases, I eventually went with my heart over my head.
The first was “A New England” – a track originally written by Billy Bragg, but made famous by Kirsty McColl.
Now, I adore Kirsty McColl, and her work will feature a number of times in this marathon trawl from A-Z.
And I loved her version of this track, which is, to all intents and purposes, the “standard” version as far as most people are concerned.
But the Billy Bragg performance is so powerful, and the lyrics written by Bragg seem – to my male mind anyway – to resonate more powerfully when sung as a male lamenting an uninterested girlfriend, than in the reverse. And the copy I have of Bragg doing this track is acoustic, and really, really punchy. So the lesser-known Billy Bragg recording won out in this instance over the more normal “hit” version.
There are going to be many more such decisions to be made as I go through the A-Z and come across tracks recorded multiple times by different artists – which version to choose? The musically significant or the hit version? original or cover? I think my decision will be made in the same way each time – referring to my heart and listening to how each version makes me feel. because that, for me, is what elevates a track from “Good” to “Great”.
The other hard decision was whether or not to include the 23-minute long prog-rock classic “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” in a one hour radio slot.
Here again it was heart against head. My gut instinct is that this is a brilliantly devised and performed masterpiece of rock from an era where tracks which occupied an entire side of an LP (as this did) were, if not the norm, at least a regular feature of the music scene. Van Der Graaf Generator are a hugely regarded band, still recording and performing today, and this track in its entirety forms an important part of their stage show.
For the music head in me, the track is a definite yes.
However, with my radio hat on, I worry about the wisdom of including a track whose running time takes up more than a third of my entire slot. It’s only the second show in the series, do I want to scare potential listeners away with a very long, complex and obscure piece of music? It would be different if the show was well established, but on the second week . .
But that last point is a fallacy. it shouldn’t matter where in the run of episodes it crops up – the question is, does the track merit playing?
Mainstream radio would never play it in a thousand years (outside, perhaps of a specialist slot). And that itself is an argument for me to include it – I’ve been on the outside, breaking down the walls of mainstream, and transgressing its limits for the whole of my radio career.
Ultimately, it is back to my emotional, gut reaction – this is a truly epic track, a “great” piece of music if ever there was one.
And so into the A-Z of Great tracks it went.
One of the greatest things about producing this series, by the way, is the fact that all of the above discussions take place entirely inside my own head, and I don’t have to seek approval, or run any of this past anyone else.
8radio.com have faith in me to do it my way.
My show, my playlist, and 100% my own decisions . . which is really “great” also!
You can catch An A-Z of Great Tracks every Wednesday evening 8-9pm on 8Radio.com.